The Washington Wizards seek answers on offense as the Miami Heat loom

The Wizards' Caron Butler is shooting only 38.3 percent from the field so far this season.
The Wizards' Caron Butler is shooting only 38.3 percent from the field so far this season. (John Mcdonnell/the Washington Post)
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By Michael Lee
Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Caron Butler hasn't shot this poorly in nearly six years, when he was playing for the Miami Heat. Gilbert Arenas has an assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.5 to 1. Antawn Jamison (right shoulder) likely won't start practicing until Thursday, and Mike Miller (left shoulder) might be another week away. Making matters worse for the Washington Wizards, Mike James recently broke his left hand and will be out four to five weeks, leaving the team with just two healthy point guards.

Add it all up, and it's no wonder the Wizards (2-5) are mired in a four-game losing streak as they prepare to play the Heat on Tuesday at AmericanAirlines Arena.

"Right now we got no mojo," Coach Flip Saunders said. "So, we need to find some mojo, bottle it up, and bring it with us."

The Wizards had seven losing streaks of five or more games last season, when they won just 19. But this is unfamiliar territory for Saunders, who never lost more than three consecutive regular season games in Detroit and hasn't lost four straight regular season games since his final season in Minnesota. The Timberwolves had a six-game skid from late January to early February 2005, and a week later, Saunders was fired.

In his first season in Washington, Saunders is seeking a quick turnaround. The Wizards have had a difficult schedule, facing five teams that have four or more wins this season, "but I'm not using that as an excuse," Saunders said.

The Wizards' poor offensive execution has been the primary, and an unlikely, culprit for their woes. A team that used to focus more on outscoring teams rather than stopping them is playing well defensively: The Wizards rank eighth in field goal percentage defense (.435). But they have reached triple digits only in their two wins. In their past four losses to Cleveland, Miami, Indiana and Phoenix, the Wizards have averaged just 88.8 points. They are scoring just 95.6 points per game for the season and shooting 43.9 percent overall, which both rank 22nd in the league.

"Defense wins championships," point guard Randy Foye said, "but we also have to score the ball."

The team has yet to embrace the system that brought Saunders success in Detroit and Minnesota. The absence of Miller and Jamison, and an ever-changing lineup has led to less trust among teammates.

"We're trying to find out what we are," said Arenas, who sat out practice Monday because of a sore left calf muscle. "We're just trying to figure out how we can put the ball in the basket, what Coach wants from each player. That's what we're struggling with."

The Wizards are also struggling with ball movement. They've committed 61 turnovers and have just 58 assists in their last four games. They had fewer assists than Steve Nash on Sunday. Saunders emphasized sharing the ball and making the extra pass in practice, even as Arenas still believes the Wizards aren't shooting quickly enough.

"I say it's when we have shots open, we're not taking them," said Arenas, who is averaging 24.4 points, 5.6 assists and 3.7 turnovers this season. "We're trying to do the extra dribble, or get closer to the rim, or pass the ball an extra time when we could just take the first shot. If you look at a team like Phoenix, the reason they don't have turnovers is they're launching 'em. They're letting it fly, so they don't have a chance to turn the ball over."

Saunders agreed with Arenas that assists are hard to come by with unnecessary dribbling, but he added that one-on-one play has been a greater hindrance to offensive efficiency.

"If you get the ball and think I've got to score, no matter what offense you're in, it's not going to matter. That's been our mentality a little bit," Saunders said. "We've got some guys who when things go bad, Caron [Butler], Gil, they think they can take the game over. And on our level it's tough to do that. You've got to trust your teammates to do that."

Butler has appeared out of sorts in Saunders's new scheme, and he has been more aggressive the past two games. The problem is, his shots haven't been falling. Butler is shooting just 38.3 percent from the field and joked that the new rims are to blame.

"That's what it is," Butler said with a grin. "Them rims are more narrow than the last ones."

Butler said the Wizards have too much talent to not turn it around.

"We've just got to get better acquainted with one another and believe in one another," Butler said. "It'll come around full circle. You've got to remain positive. We'll be all right. . . . We'll bounce back. We got like 70-something left."

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