Encouraging signs for a night

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.

This is the way the Wizards will need to play. This everybody-chipping-in is going to need to be their identity. The Wizards, at one point in the fourth, had Miller, Boykins, Butler, Andray Blatche and DeShawn Stevenson on the floor, with Stevenson hounding LeBron. If you think we find Stevenson and his antics annoying sometimes, imagine how the game's superstars like LeBron must find him. Even Saunders called Stevenson's effort in the second half "meat-and-potatoes basketball" and noted he avoided his usual antics.

Saunders has been a professional basketball coach long enough to know one November games means very, very little. Before the game, Cleveland's Brown said he doesn't even want to consider his team reaching peak performance until February. "Guys, including me," he said, "get too full of themselves. Ebb and flow, I'm okay with it."

Saunders said he doesn't begin drawing any meaningful conclusions until 20, 25 games into a season. This season may requite more games because the Wizards have added so many meaningful players (Foye, Miller, Fabricio Oberto and now Boykins), a new head coach, a completely new system of play, and reintroduced perhaps the two most important players on the floor (Arenas and Haywood).

"I hoped we'd be able to see that from the beginning," Saunders said, knowing it's not possible, especially with players missing time already with injuries. Saunders says he likes to see his team play on the road, and against some of the league's best teams before drawing conclusions, too.

"That's why the team that has impressed me the most so far," he said, "is Atlanta." Saunders was referring to the way the Hawks have played and who they've defeated, including the Celtics.

"I'm not a very patient person," Saunders said. "The demands are not going to stop how hard we play, how consistently. But I'll have to bite my lip."

The last word, deservedly, went to LeBron James himself, who put on a show for a legitimately full house at Verizon Center, for people who came mostly to see him. Nothing creates the kind of buzz here that Michael Jordan's appearance used to create, or for that matter Magic Johnson's or the Celtic visits when Larry Bird played. But Kobe and LeBron are the Big Draws now.

And when people can see LeBron score 34, dish nine assists and throw down a couple of all-world dunks, including one left-handed number on which he seemed to smash his wrist yet the Wizards win it's a pretty big night around these parts.

LeBron was asked whether the Wizards, given how slowly they began this season, had any kind of "statement" win Wednesday night. LeBron measured his words carefully, smiled and said what everybody watching every team in the NBA ought to remember: "If you're making a statement right now, you've got some bad, bad priorities." With that, the Wizards were leaving the building, 72 games left in their season.

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