By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 20, 2009
The ball rolled on the court and LeBron James appeared to have an easy rebound. But as James leaned down to pick it up, Brendan Haywood lunged, slapped down with his large left hand, gained control of the ball and alertly called a timeout to secure the possession.
Haywood had a game-high 13 rebounds in the Washington Wizards' 108-91 win against Cleveland on Wednesday, and that sort of ball-hawking determination has defined his play this season, as he is averaging a career-high 10.8 rebounds a game.
Haywood has never averaged more than 7.2 rebounds for a full season, but he ranks eighth in the NBA -- ahead of reigning rebounding champion Dwight Howard. He has grabbed 10 or more rebounds in six of the Wizards' 10 games this season, including a career-high 19 in Indiana on Nov. 6.
The 7-foot Haywood is also making his presence felt while protecting. He had three blocked shots against the Cavaliers -- including one rejection on which Cavaliers guard Delonte West came charging into him and Haywood sent both the ball and West to the floor -- and ranks second in the league with 2.5 blocked shots per game.
Haywood's season has mostly been overlooked with the Wizards' early struggles. But even before his impact plays against the Cavaliers as the team snapped a six-game losing streak Wednesday, Coach Flip Saunders certainly noticed.
"I think he's one of the keys as to why we've been better defensively," Saunders said of Haywood, who has anchored a defense that ranks 14th in points allowed (98.8) and 11th in field goal percentage defense (43.9).
Haywood said his increased rebounding, scoring and shot-blocking numbers this season are a direct correlation to playing a career-best 33.8 minutes. "That's big because it helps me from a mental aspect. If I go out there and I know I'm going to play 30 minutes, it gives you confidence, because you feel your coach has confidence in you. You don't have to go out there pressing," said Haywood, who is averaging 10.9 points.
"Not trying to speak negatively about anyone, but in previous years, I was playing like I had to make something happen. If it didn't happen in the first five minutes I felt like I had to do something or I might not play in the second half. That's a tough way to play. Now, it's a little bit different. I think Flip has confidence in me and I benefit from it."
Before his breakthrough season in 2007-08, Haywood often would complain about how he was utilized, as former coach Eddie Jordan often called on Etan Thomas, believing that he could provide a more physical presence. The competition with Thomas often became personal and ugly, as they exchanged blows at least three times, fighting in the locker room and on the practice court.
"Eddie tried to motivate us both by putting us against each other. I don't think it worked for either guy," Haywood said. "We ended up splitting minutes and fighting every day in practice. It was a bad strategy for the team and it was bad for both of us."
After eight years of sparring with each other in Washington, Haywood and Thomas will meet for the first time as opponents on Friday, when the Wizards (3-7) face the Thunder in Oklahoma City, where they have never won.
"It won't be different. We practiced against each other all the time," Haywood said. "I don't think it's going to be that big a deal."
Haywood's two best seasons occurred in 2004-05, when Thomas missed significant action because of an abdomen injury, and two seasons ago, when Thomas missed the entire season because of a heart ailment. Both Thomas and Haywood dealt with injury-marred campaigns last season, as Thomas missed the final three months with a torn medial collateral ligament and Haywood missed 76 games because of torn ligament in his right wrist.
The Wizards separated Haywood and Thomas in June, when they shipped Thomas to Minnesota in a package that yielded Mike Miller and Randy Foye. The Timberwolves then sent Thomas to Oklahoma City in a move that put Thomas closer to his native Tulsa. He's averaging four points and 3.8 rebounds as a reserve.
Haywood said that even if Thomas had been around this season, he still would be putting up career numbers with the Wizards.
"I'm not trying to sound cocky or start any trouble, but I felt I was going to get my 30 minutes regardless," said Haywood, who is also averaging 10.9 points per game. "The year before I got injured, I think I really solidified myself as the team's starting center. The trade didn't affect me. It actually probably helped him, because it gives him a better chance to play out in Oklahoma."