Wade can teach Wizards how to pull out a must-win game

Dwayne Wade (in black), beats Wizards Andray Blatche and Caron Butler to a loose ball, as he willed the Heat to victory.
Dwayne Wade (in black), beats Wizards Andray Blatche and Caron Butler to a loose ball, as he willed the Heat to victory. (John Mcdonnell/the Washington Post)
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By Michael Wilbon
Thursday, November 5, 2009

It's easy to think there aren't any games of consequence in early November of a season that lasts until the middle of April. But when you're the Washington Wizards, trying to piece a team together playing for a new coach, attempting to reincorporate the franchise star, hoping to completely reverse a dreadful season, there are no games to waste. Not even in the interminable season that is the NBA's.

There's only one way to respond after failing to hold onto to a 19-point lead in Cleveland Tuesday night: come back home and win Wednesday night. The second game in the back-to-back set was less glamorous than battling LeBron James, but more important to the standings because Miami is a division opponent that will probably be in direct competition for a playoff spot with the Wizards.

You don't particularly need the game if you're the Lakers or the Celtics, the Spurs or Magic, the Cavaliers or even the Trail Blazers. But the Wizards need these games at home, even the preposterously early ones before Thanksgiving. They need to figure out how to beat Miami, a team the Wizards play three times in November. They need to quickly figure out what to do with Dwyane Wade, who seems to be the Wizards' boogie man. They need to figure out how to move the ball when defenders run out at them, as the Cavaliers did late Tuesday and Miami did early Wednesday. They need to figure out how to keep Andray Blatche feeling good about his newfound level of contribution, particularly at home, and how to get to midseason form long before midseason.

So, last night's loss at home was only one early November defeat, but doubly disappointing as it came 24 hours after losing to Cleveland. And as we've seen before, there was the Wizards double-whammy of losing Mike Miller, for who knows how long, to a sprained left shoulder.

It really wasn't a feel-good night at the Phone Booth. The crowd was small, but that's what beeeez (to quote Moses Malone) in this economy on a weeknight. The upper deck was largely empty. Half the suites appeared to be unused. There were blocks of empty seats in the lower bowl. It was like a Mystics crowd in the early oughts. It's not anybody's fault; it's just a new reality for the NBA. I wonder if by the end of the season these smaller-than-used-to-be home crowds will contribute to a diminished home court advantage.

Wednesday night, the Wizards were simply at a D-Wade disadvantage. It wasn't just that Wade scored 40, which he did, on 14-of-26 shooting. It's that Wade had decided early on, when the team was boarding the bus at the hotel, that this was a game his team had to have. Why? Because the Heat, like the Wizards, had just lost a game they should have won. Because, "this is a division game, because the only way to respond to a loss you feel you shouldn't have is to come back and win. Because if you can come back and win it helps with your confidence as a team, and because Gil's not close to where he's going to be at the end of the season. I'd like to get all of our games with them out of the way early, before Gil gets his legs under him."

Wade, like all the great players, found reasons to challenge his team to win this game no matter what, early November or not. When his coach tried to rest him in the fourth quarter Wade gave him a look that said, "I ain't coming out," Wade said, laughing afterward. He played all 24 minutes of the second half 24 hours after running up and down the court with a manic Suns team.

Asked about scoring such a large percentage of his team's points, Wade said, "Some nights you just have to will your team to win."

That's what every team in the NBA needs, its best player to carry the team down the stretch. It would be unfair to ask Arenas to do that now; he's not there yet physically, as Wade said. Arenas, however, is at the point where he can get to the rim like he always has, though he doesn't finish around the rim the way he did three years ago. And when it came time for teammates to pick it up a beat Wednesday night, well, it didn't happen.

Three turnovers and two missed foul shots in the final 44 seconds sabotaged whatever chance the Wizards had to win in the final minute. Particularly bad were DeShawn Stevenson's pair of missed free throws with 20 seconds left with the game tied at 89. You know who hit the jumper to put Miami ahead for good? Wade, silly.

Okay, one loss in November in the fifth game of the season is no reason to go crazy or become discouraged. But we were reminded Wednesday night that the Wizards do need Antawn Jamison, that Arenas is probably a couple of months from the kind of end-of-game exploits we grew accustomed to seeing, and that the Wizards have a ways to go before all the pieces fit what Flip Saunders is trying to put together. In the meantime, looking only at the small picture, D-Wade came into town, like the greatest players do in the NBA, and stole a single game from a division opponent that could have implications down the road, giving the Wizards one more thing to think about.

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