Rookie DeRozan Leads Raptors Past Wizards, 100-93

Toronto Raptors' Amir Johnson (15) jumps against Washington Wizards' Nick Young (1) and Andray Blatche (center right) during the first half of an NBA preseason basketball game in Toronto on Sunday, Oct. 11, 2009. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Chris Young)
Toronto Raptors' Amir Johnson (15) jumps against Washington Wizards' Nick Young (1) and Andray Blatche (center right) during the first half of an NBA preseason basketball game in Toronto on Sunday, Oct. 11, 2009. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Chris Young) (Chris Young - AP)
By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 12, 2009

TORONTO, Oct. 11 -- Coach Flip Saunders was in rare preseason form on Sunday during the Washington Wizards' 100-93 loss to the Toronto Raptors at Air Canada Center. He was animated, arguing with a replacement referee after Fabricio Oberto fell on his back and was called for a foul in the first quarter. He clapped and screamed for a three-second violation call when he saw Toronto's Chris Bosh camped out in the lane. He spent the rest of his time pacing the sideline with a pensive look, arms folded, index finger resting on his upper lip.

It was a stark contrast to the approach that Saunders had taken for most of the first two exhibitions, when he patiently sat and observed, popping up on occasion. The fully engaged Saunders is the one with whom his players should get accustomed to. It didn't take him long to revert to regular season form, and it comes as he is set for a reunion with his former team, the Detroit Pistons, on Tuesday in Grand Rapids, Mich.

"It would be better if it was in Detroit," Saunders said with a smile. "It won't be quite the same as if it were in Detroit."

Saunders was fired in the summer of 2008 after his team lost in the Eastern Conference finals for the third consecutive year and was forced to take his first hiatus from coaching in the past 32 years. Saunders said recently that he was surprised when Joe Dumars, the Pistons' president of basketball operations, told him that the team was moving in another direction.

"I guess a little bit, because when I talked to Joe when the season ended, he actually said it was the best coaching job that I had done since I had been there. So I thought I was fine," he said. Dumars "said at that time [late Pistons owner Bill] Davidson made a decision and wanted to make a change, so in this business, it doesn't matter what we think.

"But I always respect that they gave me an opportunity. They gave me, not only an opportunity, but everything I needed in order to win. A lot of elite teams say they want to win, but they don't have that full commitment to do it. They definitely had that full commitment to try to do that there and as I said, we do here" in Washington.

Saunders had been fired before, after nearly 10 seasons in Minnesota, but said it didn't necessarily prepare him for the second time.

"I don't know if it's ever less painful, but the way I look at it, things happen for a reason," Saunders said. "Based on the fact that at both spots, where I was and what happened after I left, I hope is somewhat of an indication of the impact that I had while I was there."

The Timberwolves haven't reached the postseason in the four years since firing Saunders; last season, the Pistons traded away Chauncey Billups, won just 39 games and lost in the first round. Saunders said the time away made him more secure and committed to his philosophies. "When you don't reach a goal or don't finish it, it's a disappointment," Saunders said of his time in Detroit. "But I do think you feel that you're there and you averaged winning 60 games a year, I think you're doing something right."

Throughout his coaching career, Saunders has usually been asked to revitalize a flailing organization, as the case is now with the Wizards. But in Detroit, Saunders had replaced Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown, who had guided the Pistons to back-to-back NBA Finals appearances and an NBA title in 2004. Saunders tweaked some things offensively and let his core group of Chauncey Billups, Rasheed Wallace, Ben Wallace, Richard Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince and Ben Wallace use some the defensive schemes that were successful under previous regimes.

But near the end of his time in Detroit, many of his players tuned him out. Asked if he would've done anything differently in his three years in Detroit, Saunders said "not at all." He said his teams fell victim to some unfortunate circumstances.

"I think you have to understand, the importance of the last year we played, Chauncey got hurt and was never the same after he pulled his hamstring, so he never was 100 percent," Saunders said. "I think we know how important Chauncey is based on the fact that he wasn't there last year. Then, the first year we got beat, 'Sheed sprained his ankle and basically played on one leg. Dwyane Wade went crazy [in 2006], then LeBron [James in 2007]. We didn't get there, but you got to be lucky, too."

Saunders said he is going to enjoy catching up with his former players Hamilton, Prince, Rodney Stuckey and Jason Maxiel on Tuesday. "We had great success, especially in the regular season. In the playoffs, we didn't get what we ultimately wanted, which was getting a championship or getting to the Finals, but we did everything besides that."

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