By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 30, 2010; D5
It was a horrible first impression - historic even, considering that no No. 1 overall pick had ever endured such a lopsided defeat in his first NBA game. But John Wall and the Washington Wizards didn't have much time to dwell on their season-opening 29-point loss in Orlando on Thursday night.
They arrived in Atlanta a little past 2 a.m., and were dissecting the many breakdowns, specifically defensively, in a film session about 10 hours later.
The Wizards spent the next two hours trying to correct those mistakes during a spirited practice on the Hawks' practice court at Philips Arena. Afterward, the players separated, with some hitting the weight room and Coach Flip Saunders working on individual shooting drills with Wall and Yi Jianlian.
"That was a bad night for us," reserve forward-center Hilton Armstrong said of the 112-93 loss to the Magic. "Everybody, including myself probably just spaced out. It was just something we haven't been practicing. Defensively, nobody was in the right spot, nobody was talking. We wasn't playing like that in preseason, we haven't played like that in practice. I'm just hoping it was just jitters everybody had to get out of them and we'll be ready" for the Hawks.
Saturday's game against Atlanta couldn't come soon enough for the Wizards, who desperately want to prove that the performance against the Magic, which made them a punch line on TNT, was an aberration caused by nerves and relative unfamiliarity against an NBA championship contender.
"Orlando is a great team, a veteran team that's been to the Finals," JaVale McGee said. "They know what they're doing. It wasn't even a season opener for them, it was a midseason game for them. We're just getting started, with our roles as players and how we're going to play our defense or whatever."
Saunders thought he had a sense of his team coming out of the preseason, but he hardly recognized the team he saw usher the Magic to the hoop for uncontested layups, fail to close out on perimeter shooters and serve as spectators nearly every time the basketball bounced off the rim. The Wizards let Orlando shoot 66 percent from the floor through three quarters and got outrebounded 53-25.
"The things we worked on for five weeks, it's like we forgot them," said Saunders, who repeatedly furrowed his brow and curled his lips in frustration on Thursday. "Through training camp, we had been extremely competitive and I thought we lost our competitiveness. We just did not handle the situation very well."
Saunders gave credit to Dwight Howard, the Magic's two-time reigning defensive player, who had three blocked shots and two fewer rebounds (10) than the entire Wizards' starting unit. "Dwight Howard scared our bigs," Saunders said.
McGee sat quietly in front of his locker room stall, staring blankly at nothing in particular after the game. He had just seven points and two rebounds and was repeatedly caught out of position on defense. "I was just disappointed in the margin we lost by," he said. "We've just got to come back and work harder. I need to go harder at getting to the boards, and fight harder when I get boxed out and not just settling."
Al Thornton, who led the Wizards with seven rebounds, said there was "no excuse" for their porous defense, adding that they need to communicate more on both ends of the floor and take more pride when opponents attack the lane without getting any resistance. Thornton said that when he watched film of Vince Carter, Jameer Nelson and Rashard Lewis repeatedly slashing inside for layups, he could only think of one word.
"Soft," Thornton said.
"That's it. Got to toughen up. We were horrible, to be honest with you. It's no excuse for that, teams getting layups. I don't care if you have to foul them, or flagrant foul, that's unacceptable. That's a possible playoff, championship-type team, but we've got a lot of work to do."
The Wizards focused on setting solid screens, their defensive schemes and defensive rebounding, although Armstrong said it's difficult to get defensive rebounds if the opponent is consistently making shots. Saunders was pleased with the energy displayed by the last group he had on the floor: Cartier Martin, Jianlian, Trevor Booker, Hamady Ndiaye and Lester Hudson. "Realistically, in the last week, those guys have been kicking the tail out of the first team," he said. "So I guess, maybe it shouldn't be a surprised based on how they've been playing."
Andray Blatche said the Wizards have to put that loss behind them. "We just got outworked, we got outhustled and we didn't communicate. We're a young team, we're going to make mistakes," Blatche said. "We're not worried about Orlando anymore, we're worried about Atlanta. We can't dwell on the past, we've got to have a short-term memory and compete."
McGee added that there is no need to overreact. "It's the first game out of 82 and we played against a top playoff team. So, if people expected us to go 82-0, they are going to be disappointed."
Now the Wizards just want to avoid starting the season 0-2.