Tough tests await improving Wizards

By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 26, 2010

JaVale McGee jumped straight up, spotted Philadelphia 76ers forward Elton Brand charging at him but never lost sight of the rim. So when Brand shoved him backward with both hands, McGee was still able to throw down a dunk, even though it required every inch of his 7-foot-6 wingspan to get the ball through the hoop.

"All of it," McGee said with a smile, after absorbing a hit that led to Brand receiving a one-game suspension on Wednesday.

When the Washington Wizards needed to be rescued in the final 20 seconds, their two rookies delivered some veteran moves: Trevor Booker forced a turnover and John Wall wisely anticipated the 76ers would foul him and got the officials to reward him with three free throws after attempting a shot from about 40 feet.

And, in the decisive possession, Gilbert Arenas had the ball in his hands. But unlike in the previous game against Detroit when he passed the ball to his right, Nick Young - and not Andray Blatche - was wide open and buried the game-winning three-pointer.

The plays the Wizards needed to go their way did on Tuesday during a 116-114 overtime win over the 76ers, but that has been the case in most of their games against the dregs of the NBA at Verizon Center this season. They've had Cartier Martin come off the bench cold to hit an overtime-forcing three-pointer in a win over Philadelphia three weeks ago and had McGee chase down speedy point guard Mike Conley Jr. to save a win over Memphis.

But now the Wizards (5-8) will see if they can find a way to get that kind of production - and good fortune to go their way - against quality teams, and possibly on the road. They have the second-weakest strength of schedule (.409) of any NBA team through their first 13 games and they have yet to record a win against a team with a winning record.

"We're definitely trying to be a consistent team," McGee said. "We're trying to have more wins than losses. We're at least trying to get to .500."

The Wizards will have the chance to move closer to that goal and see if they can have some carryover from Philadelphia in their next three games against Atlanta, Orlando and Miami, teams with winning records that are expected to be among the top teams in the Eastern Conference when the season ends. They will play the Hawks at Philips Arena on Thanksgiving on TNT in a game that is currently the Wizards' last nationally televised game of the season, and they would like to have a better showing than their appearance in the season opener, when Orlando handled them by 29 points.

They bounced back in their next game against Atlanta but were unable to get any critical stops, as Hawks all-stars Al Horford and Joe Johnson hit the shots that resulted in their team winning, 99-95. But the Wizards are a different team, with Arenas back on the floor and the steady improvements of McGee and Young, who have become more reliable in recent games.

"We're learning. We're getting better," Arenas said. "JaVale's playing a lot better basketball than he was at the beginning. He's rebounding for us. He's blocking shots, he's understanding what his role is. Nick played a hell of a game [against Philadelphia], and for us to be good, he has to step up, and he knows he does."

McGee's growth was evident with his determination to scrap for rebounds while maintaining a high energy level for longer stretches. He has grabbed at least 10 rebounds in the past four games, including a combined 44 points, 34 rebounds and six blocked shots in the past two. After taking the hit from Brand, McGee mockingly smiled and waved goodbye as Brand got ejected. (On Wednesday, Brand was suspended one game for that flagrant foul.)

"Lately, his energy has been great," Kirk Hinrich said about McGee, who leads the NBA in blocked shots with 2.9 per game. "He's trying very hard and he's been playing great because of it. We just need him to keep doing what he's doing. And when he plays like that, he's a problem. He can completely mess up the game for the other team."

Young is on one of his best rolls ever with the Wizards, as he is providing some much needed offense off the bench - he has scored at least 18 points in four of the past five games - in addition to solid on-the-ball defense. "He's been a spark," Coach Flip Saunders said. "From the beginning to the end, he's probably been one of our most consistent players this year."

The Wizards will need more from Young, with Al Thornton spraining his left ankle in the first quarter against the 76ers. Saunders wasn't sure if he was going to finally implement a three-guard starting lineup with Wall, Arenas and Hinrich against the Hawks, especially with Wall still recovering from a sprained left foot and experiencing some leg cramps late in the win over Philadelphia. "We'll probably have to wait and see what bodies we have, who's going to be healthy," he said. "I couldn't tell you."

But after returning from a four-game absence to score 25 points on Tuesday, Wall already knows what the Wizards have to do if they want to have any success against superior teams. "We're a team that is a young team that has to play hard."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company