Though the season's been trying, some Washington Wizards aren't ready for the end

By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 12, 2010

The celebration begins with Nick Young and Andray Blatche crouching down and slapping five, and ends with the two friends forming their fingers into the shape of a telephone and having a mock conversation.

It's a routine that Young and Blatche started in practice, when Young playfully "called" his buddy after making a good play and Blatche returned the favor. Their teammates and coaches thought it was funny, so the two decided to make it part of their pregame introduction ritual shortly after Young became a late-season starter. And, they'll occasionally dial up each other during games.

Blatche said the routine is to show that the two are "dialed in" with each other.

"I just give him a call up. I'll say, 'That's a nice move, I like that one,' " Young said, smiling. "It kind of keeps the fun in it, keeps us going. It's been our thing."

The Washington Wizards (25-55) have just two games remaining on a season that hasn't gone the way anyone planned, with their best player suspended and entering a halfway house on a felony gun conviction and other former stars helping Dallas and Cleveland make playoff pushes. But while there has been much misery -- and a few season-ending injuries -- in compiling the second-worst record in the Eastern Conference, some members of the team don't want to see the season come to an end on Wednesday.

"Life is a challenge and that's exactly what it's been. It's been a challenge for us," Blatche said as the Wizards prepare to face the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden on Monday. "Just because it's been hard doesn't mean I want it to be over. This is something that I love to do. This is my life. I grew up around basketball. When it's over, I'm going to miss it more than anything."

Blatche has used the second half of the season as an opportunity to make good on the promise of his potential, as he has averaged 22.1 points, 8.3 rebounds and 3.5 assists and has recorded 12 double-doubles in the past 30 games. Since electing to rebuild at the trade deadline, the Wizards have used the remaining games to focus on player development and evaluation of young players, including JaVale McGee, Young and point guard Shaun Livingston.

"You evaluate talent, you evaluate attitudes, how guys perform, how they react to different situations, how they perform, how they respond to coaching," Coach Flip Saunders said. "Players in the league are constantly evaluated, not just by our team but [by] everybody. It's just an ongoing process."

Livingston went from being a player on a 10-day contract hoping to find his place in the league following a horrific knee injury three years ago to becoming a late-season starter whom the Wizards hope to retain in free agency this summer. "It's beneficial. I went from not playing at all, to being careful about what you asked for," said Livingston, who is averaging 16.3 points and 6.3 assists in 38 minutes in the past seven games.

McGee, a second-year center, has gone from seldom-used role player to starter to game-changing reserve, as he has recorded six double-doubles and 12 games with at least three blocked shots since the all-star break. He said he would like a few more games "to show them that I should be playing extended minutes."

There were probably times when Young probably couldn't wait for this season to end. He's had to deal with disappointment since opening night, when Saunders named Mike Miller the starter at shooting guard. Young then moved in and out of the rotation and even went on the inactive list for the first time in his career. His fragile confidence took dramatic swings, seemingly, with each made or missed jump shot. "It's been like a roller-coaster ride," Young said. "We've seen mostly everything in this locker room. You just got to keep going."

Young was placed in the starting lineup for good on March 30 in Houston -- only after Josh Howard's season-ending left knee injury, Al Thornton's strained right hip flexor and Alonzo Gee's surprising departure to San Antonio after playing out two 10-day contracts in Washington. The Wizards have gone 4-4 since that move.

"It hurts. I was expecting to do big things this year. How this year went, I'm glad it's ending this way," said Young, a third-year guard. "The last couple of games, I had to take advantage of it. I love this game of basketball. I really ain't got the opportunity like I got now. The more minutes I play, I want to be good out there and hopefully people see it -- other teams, this team -- that I belong here."

Young is averaging 21.6 points in his past five games, forcing Blatche to call him up a few times. "I'm real proud of him. He found a switch in his head and he got refocused and hungry and aggressive," Blatche said. "He's playing great and that's how I want him to play the rest of the season and the rest of his career."

Young is finally starting to have fun, and now he doesn't want it to stop. "Nah, not the way we're going right now," Young said. "We're playing good. If we started off like this, I think it would've been a better year."

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