By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 1, 2010; D05
If the opportunity ever presented itself, Caron Butler knows exactly how he would defend Coach Flip Saunders in a game of one-on-one. He'd play the former sharpshooting point guard closely, and force him to go with his weak hand at all times.
"I know he can't go left. I'm going to sit on his right," Butler said with a grin. "At 54, he'd probably get a bucket or two, but he ain't going to be able to do what he wants to do out there."
Butler was responding to Saunders's assessment after the Washington Wizards' loss to Oklahoma City on Tuesday that his team had so many bad individual defenders that, even at age 54, he could probably take any of them in a game of one-on-one.
"We understood where he was coming from when he made the statement, but he jumped out there on that one. That was crazy," Butler said, smiling again, adding that it wasn't a joking matter. "I'm a man first. I got pride. I take pride in everything I do, particularly on the court. To see that and we exchanged words and he told me, he expects more from me. He told me some of the things he wanted and I said, 'Don't worry about it.' I got the message. I'm pretty sure everybody else did, too."
Saunders put his team through an intense three-hour practice on Thursday that focused exclusively on defense, one of the Wizards' sore spots in recent years.
The Wizards (10-20) have made some improvements on the defensive end under Saunders -- they rank 10th in opponents' field goal percentage (44.8), which is a significant improvement from last season when they were 29th in that category (48.2). But they have had too many breakdowns at inopportune times, especially in the fourth quarter, which pushed Saunders off the deep end on Tuesday. On that night, the Wizards allowed the Thunder to shoot 72 percent and score 34 points in the final period. In was the second time in three games that an opponent scored 30 or more points in the final period.
"I think it was the constant fact that we continue to make some of the same mistakes, and it just doesn't seem that when people score on us, that we cared. But yet we care if we don't get shots," Saunders said, explaining his nearly three-minute tirade.
"I've never had a team, in all my time, even if you look at my Detroit teams, it didn't matter who scored. It didn't matter who took shots. The crux of the communication always had to do with what we were going to do defensively," he said. "That's one of the reasons that we've lost the close games, because we haven't had the confidence, defensively, to think that in the last two minutes, when we need to make two stops in a row to win a game, that we can do that. That's the point that we're getting to. I gave 30 games to evaluate and see where it's at. It got to a point where this is just not going to work that way. There has to be a mental change."
After a two-day cooling period, Saunders didn't back away from his words, and even applied more pressure to his three captains -- Butler, Gilbert Arenas and Antawn Jamison -- after Arenas said that the team had adopted a "losing mentality" in recent years.
"Gil can say that, but when you have the money that those three guys are making, you never talk about loser mentality," Saunders said about Arenas, Jamison and Butler, who will earn $16.2 million, $11.6 million and $9.8 million this season, respectively. "You're making $20 million; you're getting paid to win. Bottom line. Don't blame it on the guy that's making $300,000. This is a league where you get paid on your production and what your expectations are. It's up to them to change that mentality. They have to carry us."
Butler agreed. "When it all goes back, it's going to fall back on us," he said. "We're the captains, the leaders. . . . We got guys back healthy. We got to lead our ball club to wins.
"We've got to get it done."
Saunders singled out Butler after practice, saying that it was the best he'd looked since taking over as coach. "Today I saw Caron Butler -- we had a talk yesterday or whatever -- play how I thought he could play. I told him, maybe I've given him too much credit and been soft on him and haven't driven him enough. That's not going to happen anymore."
Butler said during training camp that his goal was to be an all-league defender, but his difficult adjustment to playing alongside Arenas again has seen his offensive production fluctuate dramatically, right along with his effort on defense. And after averaging at least two steals per game in each of the past two seasons, Butler is down to just 1.6 this season.
"There's definitely a lot of room for improvement," said Butler, adding that he understands what he has to do after watching film of himself and talking with Saunders, who spoke with him about "not second guessing myself out there at all. Don't try to fit in, just be you out there.
"I think that's what's been going on a majority of the time, just trying to fit in and do the right thing. . . . That's when I'm at my best."