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After 1-3 road trip, Washington Wizards must dig out of their latest hole

By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 21, 2009; D03

When the Washington Wizards arrived home just before sunrise early Sunday morning, they were greeted by several inches of snow but avoided experiencing the brunt of one of the area's worst blizzards. But after a week-long trip through some much warmer spots in Los Angeles, Sacramento, Oakland, Calif., and Phoenix, the Wizards found themselves buried under layers of problems that won't be cleared up with just a shovel.

Although they faced just one team with a winning record, the Wizards came away with just one victory against Golden State, two close losses to the Clippers and Kings, and a blowout loss in the finale against the Suns. Despite their 1-3 record, the Wizards (8-17) still believe they made progress on the trip, with Coach Flip Saunders and several of his players commenting on how the team could've easily won two more games if a few more breaks had gone their way.

For a veteran team, it seems a bit disconcerting to feel pleased with moral victories, but unfortunately for the Wizards, that's all they can cling to.

"We're close," Antawn Jamison said, "but it's still a lot of work ahead. I definitely like the psyche of this team. Still, guys are upbeat. Guys still feel that we're going to turn things around. Guys are still working hard in practices and going out there on the court and not giving up. But we got to start winning games and we got to do it quickly."

Washington was encouraged that Gilbert Arenas rediscovered his confidence somewhere in California, with it all coming together with a vintage performance in a 118-109 win against the Warriors. Arenas had season highs with 45 points and 13 assists -- his most productive showing since he first injured his left knee in April 2007.

Caron Butler also had his best performance of the season against the Warriors, as he scored a season-high 28 points and had 10 rebounds and five steals. But it may have been a commentary on the state of the team that it needed two mammoth performances from two of its former all-stars to pull out a game in the final two minutes against one of the league's most dysfunctional teams.

After becoming the only NBA player this season to record a 40-point, 10-assist game, Arenas joked that the time away from Washington was so good that he planned on staying behind and rejoining the team when it comes back in March. Before boarding the flight from Phoenix on Saturday, Arenas was asked if he was happy to return home, where the Wizards are just 4-7. They host Philadelphia on Tuesday.

"Not really. I ain't even going to lie. Why lie? But I'm going to have to," he said. "It would've been better if we was 3-1 on the road instead of 1-3. We have to face our fears as a team and win at the Verizon Center."

Many will remember how Earl Boykins dribbled the ball off his leg when the team was preparing for a game-tying shot in a 97-95 loss to the Clippers, or how rookie Tyreke Evans poked the ball away from Arenas in the closing seconds of a 112-109 loss to the Kings. But Washington suffered through some lengthy lulls from which it was unable to recover.

They blew a 17-point, second-half lead against the Clippers and got outscored 50-31 in the final 19 minutes. They allowed the Kings to go on a 27-12 run over an 11-minute span in the second half. And, they simply got manhandled for 48 minutes in a 121-95 loss to the Suns.

"I think we can learn from the good and see, this is when we're at our best, when we play with this type of energy, this type of ball movement, this type of defensive intensity," Brendan Haywood said. "And this is when we're at our worst, when we go out on our own and try to do it our own way. It's the same things that we've been talking about through training camp and we need to go ahead and correct them before it's too late."

Saunders's greatest concern with his team, which led him to make his most critical remarks of the season, was the players' poor shot selection. He said he never had to yell at a player about taking a bad shot -- in the NBA, CBA or college -- until this season, adding that he would have to start "reining in" his players.

"I gave them a lot of rope early to see where they were. Now we know," Saunders said. "I think we understand now, to be good, we have to be disciplined in our approach on the offensive end and defensive end. Our guys have to understand that they have to sacrifice certain things. We talk about winning a lot of times, but we don't go out and do it that way."

Saunders told his team on this trip that he still believed that it was capable of winning 45 games this season, but that would require the Wizards going 37-20 the rest of the way. In other words, the moral victories won't count anymore.

"We're taking steps forward," Jamison said. "I still think something is going to click and things are going to start happening for us."

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