By Ivan Carter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 10, 2009
MINNEAPOLIS, March 9 -- When starting-point-guard-by-default Mike James came down with the flu Monday morning, the Wizards were placed in the familiar position of having to go out and play a game short-handed.
Fortunately, Monday's opponent was the Minnesota Timberwolves, one of the few teams in the league that claim to be in worse shape. One could almost hear the lottery balls rattling around the sparsely filled Target Center as the Wizards (15-49) snapped a five-game losing streak with a 110-99 victory.
It was the 10th straight loss overall for the Timberwolves (18-45), who have dropped 11 straight at home and moved closer to the Wizards near the bottom of the NBA standings.
Javaris Crittenton made his second career start in place of James but the second-year player out of Georgia Tech didn't have to do much heavy lifting as the Wizards outplayed the Timberwolves in nearly every way en route to their first road win since Feb. 20 at New Jersey.
Caron Butler (27 points, 10 rebounds, 6 assists) and Antawn Jamison (26 points) turned in typically solid efforts while Darius Songaila had one of his best of the season. The veteran, who has been playing out of position at center most of the season, hit his first seven shots and finished with 19 points, on 8-for-9 shooting, and six rebounds.
The Wizards shot 52.6 percent, turned the ball over only 10 times and blew the game open early in the fourth quarter with a string of impressive plays at both ends of the court as several players, including veteran guard Juan Dixon, contributed.
"You had two teams that are struggling and we knew that they were going to come and think that this was a game they were going to win in front of their home crowd," Jamison said. "For us, we wanted to get at least one on this trip. I thought we did a pretty good job from start to finish of keeping our composure."
Like the Wizards, who have played all season without Gilbert Arenas and Brendan Haywood and lost a third starter when DeShawn Stevenson went down with a back injury, the Timberwolves have been hit hard by the injury bug.
Just when the team showed some life by going 10-4 during the month of January, leading scorer and franchise player Al Jefferson went down with a season-ending knee injury. Former first-round pick Corey Brewer also went down with a season-ending knee injury and general manager-turned-head coach Kevin McHale has been left to patch together lineups with the likes of Brian Cardinal, Craig Smith, Bobby Brown and Kevin Ollie.
Of course, there is some justice in the situation, given that McHale built the roster himself.
"I'm very sympathetic to what Kevin is going through this season," Wizards interim coach Ed Tapscott said before the game. "To lose a guy who was putting up all-star numbers and was the cornerstone to what they were doing. Their style of play was geared to them getting him the ball and then they lose him. So then you have to make an adjustment on the fly and retool your team."
The Wizards have tried and failed to do that all season, but things clicked Monday night and, for once, they left an opponent looking dazed and confused.
When Jamison helped put the Timberwolves away by cutting from the top of the key, receiving a pass from Dixon and making a layup, his man, Mike Miller, was standing flat-footed near the free throw line and never saw Jamison slip by him.
The score gave the Wizards a commanding 105-92 lead and illustrated how the Wizards appeared to be one step ahead all night long. In the fourth quarter, the Wizards shot a crisp 57.9 percent while outscoring Minnesota, 31-26.
When the Wolves drew within 94-85 on a pair of free throws by Miller with 4 minutes 58 seconds to play, the Wizards responded with a Jamison drive and score, a Dixon jump shot and a pair of Dixon free throws to push the lead back to 15 points.
"We keep striving to get a little bit better, a little bit better and I thought that tonight, we did our best job of eliminating some of our mistakes," Tapscott said. "Then, when they put a run together, we didn't get frazzled, we just settled down and got back to doing what we were doing so well, and I think one of the biggest things was that we shared the ball tonight and got the right guys shots."