As injuries and losses mount, the Washington Wizards' misery continues to multiply

Washington's Andray Blatche, averaging 24.4 points since the all-star break, sprained his ankle Tuesday but expects to play Friday.
Washington's Andray Blatche, averaging 24.4 points since the all-star break, sprained his ankle Tuesday but expects to play Friday. (David Zalubowski/associated Press)
By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 18, 2010

DENVER -- Andray Blatche fell to the floor under the basket Tuesday night and immediately reached for his left ankle. Blatche looked up and saw Denver Nuggets center Nene lunging toward the basket for a powerful slam. He curled up and rolled over to avoid getting stepped on and continued to grimace and groan as he tried, unsuccessfully, to stand.

Asked what he thought when he saw Blatche writhing on the court in pain, Coach Flip Saunders shook his head and said, "You don't want to know."

Chances are, Saunders wasn't immediately expecting a positive outcome. Not in a worst-case-scenario season in which the Wizards have endured the death of owner Abe Pollin, Gilbert Arenas's season-ending suspension for bringing guns to the locker room, cost-cutting trade deadline deals that shipped out starters Antawn Jamison, Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood and Josh Howard's season-ending left knee injury. And not with the latest hardship in which a Washington area snowstorm caused the postponement of a game and forced them to play their fifth contest in six nights Tuesday in Denver.

After all, on a few occasions this season -- including this week -- Saunders has said, "Don't ever think it can't get any worse."

Saunders knows that it can. Blatche's injury turned out to be only a mild ankle sprain. Blatche said he should be able to play Friday against Portland. But that doesn't mean that Saunders and the Wizards (21-45) are out of their misery. They have lost nine games in a row for the first time in more than nine years -- and the first time in Saunders's 14 years as an NBA coach.

After handing out the latest loss to Saunders, a 97-87 defeat at Pepsi Center, Nuggets all-star point guard Chauncey Billups expressed sympathy for his former coach, who had never lost more than 42 games in one season before arriving in Washington.

"I think this has been his toughest moment as a coach, going through what he's gone through," said Billups, who played under Saunders for five seasons in Minnesota and Detroit. "The excitement of getting that job and having Gilbert and 'Tawn and Caron and them having a chance to really make some noise and then -- right away -- it just didn't work, it's been tough. I talk to him a lot, back and forth, whether it's text or on the phone. He's had some down times."

Saunders said he stayed in contact with Billups throughout the season, with Billups offering his observations about Wizards players and trying "to keep me pumped up when things aren't going well. Not only his coach, I look at Chauncey as being a good friend."

Billups said he was surprised to see what happened with the Wizards this season, but added that Saunders's system is not the easiest to grasp. "Flip's system is difficult. It takes some getting used to," he said. "It's a lot of detailed things about his system and you can't just go in there and think you're going to learn it. You've got to study. I don't know if those guys really put that work in or not. I don't really know.

"I thought they was in a good place," Billups said of the Wizards when the season began. "I don't think anybody expected this."

Few could have expected in training camp that the possible loss of Blatche to injury in mid-March would cause panic, but it says a lot about the Wizards' disastrous season. With all that has occurred, Saunders said that helping Blatche develop from a backup into a go-to guy after the all-star break has been "a lot of fun."

Blatche has averaged 24.4 points and 9.5 rebounds in the past 16 games and Saunders said: "That's something we can hang our hat on. Knowing that we're going to have Gilbert, we're going to have draft picks and we're going to have a lot of cash. We're going to have the ability to change this team drastically. What we're trying to do now is see what we have. The decisions we have to make this offseason are as big a decision that we've made in a long time."

Until then, the Wizards will have to bear the final 16 games. The grueling stretch of five games in six days against teams with four of the eight best records in the NBA went as could be expected. The Wizards had a competitive six-point loss in the opener against Atlanta, only to lose the final four games against Detroit, Orlando, Utah and Denver by double digits and an average of 15.3 points.

This road trip concludes with games against the Trail Blazers and the Los Angeles Lakers.

Although the road ahead appears bleak in the short term, Billups said he has faith that Saunders, who has had seven 50-win seasons and reached four conference finals, will eventually turn things around in Washington.

"One thing I know is, I know Flip can coach. I know he knows the game as good as anybody I've ever been around. He's going to be all right," Billups said. "I just tell him to stay strong and keep believing in what he's doing. He's been a great coach thus far, this one situation is not going to change how people perceive him as a coach or his knowledge of the game."

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