By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 3, 2008
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J., Dec. 2 -- The Washington Wizards can't exactly hit the reset button on their season, but Tuesday night provided a chance to at least start the month of December anew -- against the same New Jersey Nets that set this so-far miserable campaign in motion.
The Wizards were booed off the court during their season opener at Verizon Center, but they returned the favor to the Nets, using a stunning combination of crisp ball movement, long-range shooting and flustering defense to record a 108-88 victory that had the home fans at Izod Center jeering their team.
The win was the first on the road and the first against an Eastern Conference team this season for the Wizards (3-12), who are 2-2 since Ed Tapscott replaced Eddie Jordan as head coach last week. Tapscott said he wanted his team to establish an identity for being a hardworking, scrappy team. But if his first four games as coach have shown anything, it's that the Wizards either win big or they don't win at all. The victories under Tapscott have been by an average of 22 points.
Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison gave their usual efforts, combining for 44 points, 13 rebounds and 11 assists. DeShawn Stevenson served as the difference for Washington, as he broke out of a season-long slump by connecting on five three-pointers and scoring a season-high 21 points on 7-for-13 shooting. He was in such a groove that he didn't even have to wave his hand across his face after a made basket.
"I'm not used to going out there not making shots," said Stevenson, who entered the game shooting just over 30 percent from the floor. "Seeing the frustration on Caron's face and Antawn's face, they need another guy to come out there and help them. We need that third guy every night. I said, 'I'm going to shoot and if I miss it, I miss it, who cares?' I had to have that approach."
It also won't hurt if the Wizards move the ball, knock down shots and defend the way they did Tuesday night. For a team that has had its share of hard luck, the Wizards finally had a night when most everything went their way. They had a season-high 33 assists on 44 field goals and shot 51.8 percent. "We had a lot of people getting a lot of touches, and when a lot of people touch the ball, you play better and everybody is happy," Tapscott said. "It worked out for us."
The Wizards led for all but 56 seconds in the first half, and they pulled away in the third quarter. They outscored the Nets 35-12 by switching to a zone defense in an attempt to slow down the high-scoring back court of Devin Harris and Vince Carter.
The Nets had won three in row on the road, with Harris scoring 81 points combined in games against Utah and Phoenix, so the Wizards took away his driving lanes and placed most of the pressure on Carter. The Nets (9-8) shot just 20 percent in the period, as Harris scored just three of his team-high 18 points. Carter finished with 16.
The Wizards got a scare with 8 minutes 57 seconds left in the period, when Nets forward Bobby Simmons drove around Stevenson, dipped inside and banged knees with Butler. Butler spun around and crumpled to the floor, grabbing his left knee. Given the Wizards' history with left knee problems (see Arenas, Gilbert), the collective gasp along the team's bench was understandable while Butler grimaced and groaned on the court. But Butler got up moments later, hopped on his knee to test it out, and told Tapscott: "I'm fine. I'm going to play."
A minute later, Butler made a driving layup to give his team a 10-point lead. "It really hurts," Butler (22 points, 10 assists) said afterward, unsure if he will be able to play Wednesday night when the Wizards host Portland. "We banged knees pretty hard. I hope I'll be able to go. I hope so."
On the Wizards' next possession, point guard Dee Brown lost his dribble, but the ball scuttled to the feet of Butler, who picked it up and found Jamison cutting to the basket for a reverse layup that put the Wizards ahead 65-53. Brown (eight points) hit back-to-back three-pointers shortly thereafter to give the Wizards an 18-point lead. And Stevenson put the game out of reach with a three-pointer that gave the Wizards an 86-62 lead heading into the final period.
Stevenson broke his normal routine and took some extra shots before the game. He also heeded the advice of his mother, who told him he needed to grow back his beard to regain his shooting touch. The beard hasn't grown back fully, but for at least one night, Stevenson proved to children everywhere that you should listen to your mother.
"Yes. I'm keeping the beard," Stevenson said. "We got one on the road against a team we thought we gave away the first game. This is a new month. We are 1-0 on this month."