Encouraging signs for a night

Coach Flip Saunders was impressed with DeShawn Stevenson's defense.
Coach Flip Saunders was impressed with DeShawn Stevenson's defense. (Jonathan Newton/the Washington Post)
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By Michael Wilbon
Thursday, November 19, 2009

Nothing good can come of drawing definitive conclusions before Christmas when it comes to the NBA. The game-to-game pronouncements that characterize the way we assess the NFL's 16-game sprint simply don't work in professional basketball, with the necessary ups and downs of its interminable marathon season. When the Cleveland Cavaliers lost their first two games of the new season, NFL-style wisdom was that Shaquille O'Neal was a bad fit and Mike Brown might need to be the first coaching casualty.

Then the Cavaliers won eight of nine, five straight and the folks so worried about Cleveland looked at its standing near the top of the Eastern Conference and said, "Oops, sorry."

The Washington Wizards, on the other hand, had lost six straight and seven of nine to start the season. They were shooting the ball miserably. Gilbert Arenas looked, well, awkward in this new role of more traditional point guard. The new offense appeared a little discombobulated. The Wizards, frankly, reminded more than a few of us of the Redskins. Not good.

So what happened in Game 10 of the Wizards' season? They blew out the Cavaliers, 108-91. They came from 17 down to lead by 20 in the fourth quarter, a 37-point swing that overwhelmed LeBron James and featured probably the Wizards' best stretch of basketball so far.

Having said all that, please repeat after me: Don't conclude anything about the NBA until a team has played 20-25 games. And that includes what the Wizards did on Wednesday night against the Cavaliers, whom it should be noted played without Shaq and without forward Anderson Varejao, or as LeBron put it, "20-plus rebounds sitting on the sideline tonight."

But it is okay to be encouraged about the Wizards again after thumping one of the two best teams in the Eastern Conference.

We were reminded of how important Antawn Jamison is to the team after his debut produced 31 points, only the second 30-point performance against Cleveland this season. And it's not just the points, but the additional space in the lane created by a opposing defender having to wander out and guard Jamison.

We saw how deep the Wizards are and how many choices Coach Flip Saunders can utilize when he has a full roster. We learned that the Wizards could be on to something with Earl Boykins bringing all his energy, ball handling and opportunistic scoring off the bench. Boykins knows how to play, knows how to keep his dribble alive and burn a defense on screen-and-roll. Boykins, little as he is, is a very nice change-of-pace player who does some subtle things that might not always interest Arenas.

Because of Boykins's presence (and that of Randy Foye when he returns) we learned that the Wizards can stay with a quality opponent without Arenas having to put up outsized numbers. Arenas led the assault in the third, then didn't play a single second of the fourth. The less dependent the Wizards are on Arenas the better. "Did he have a great game? No," Saunders said.

"But 18 points, eight assists isn't too bad. And he had only two turnovers."

It's the way the Wizards hope to play. Caron Butler had 19 points. Jamison, in a truly professional and instructive debut, had 31 and 10 rebounds. Brendan Haywood scored only one basket yet patrolled the Shaq-less paint and grabbed a game-high 13 rebounds. Miller had 17 points on 7-for-11 shooting.

Boykins had nine points and three assists off the bench.

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