Warmth of Los Angeles buoys the Washington Wizards, but the Lakers will present a stiff challenge
Tuesday, December 7, 2010; 12:07 AM
LOS ANGELES - The Washington Wizards paid a visit to the former home of the Wizard of Westwood on Monday, as they practiced on the campus of UCLA, but not every player was thrilled about being at the place that the late John Wooden made famous.
As they walked up the steps to enter the court at UCLA's student activity center, Southern Cal alum Nick Young suddenly started scratching himself uncontrollably.
"I'm breaking out in hives in here," Young joked with his teammates.
But after the Wizards concluded a 90-minute practice, Young admitted that while being in the gym may have had an adverse effect on him, simply being in Los Angeles provided healing powers for others.
"Some people enjoyed themselves," Young said. "Like, Gilbert Arenas, he was jumping like he's 16 again" in practice.
Arenas, like Young a native of Los Angeles, walked by with a smile and said, "Yeah, man. This warm weather, my knees feel great. It's crazy what being in L.A. can do for you."
The Wizards (6-13) are hoping that being in Los Angeles can bring an end to their season-opening 10-game road losing streak, but they understand that defeating the defending champion Lakers at Staples Center will be a considerable challenge, especially since they are also 0-8 against teams with winning records.
They will play their 20th game Tuesday, which would mark the near-quarter mark of the season. But having already dealt with injuries to John Wall, Yi Jianlian, Al Thornton and Arenas this season, the team hasn't been able to establish an identity or much chemistry and Coach Flip Saunders has yet to find a reliable rotation. For the first time in more than three weeks, Saunders finally had his full complement of players - aside from Josh Howard, who is still a few weeks away as he continues his rehabilitation from left knee surgery - in a 125-108 loss against the Phoenix Suns on Sunday.
"Usually at 20 games, you try to find out what your identity is," Saunders said. "We aren't quite there yet, because we haven't had guys for continuity. Four of our top seven guys haven't played that much together. Ideally, we'd like to be a team that would be able to create turnovers defensively, score in the open court some, and with our length, we were hoping to really protect the inside paint. That's something, we've been too soft inside. Those are things we have to continue to work on."
Kirk Hinrich and Andray Blatche are the only two players to start all 19 games for the Wizards this season, but Blatche refused to blame the team's struggles on injuries, saying that the players have enough time in practice to develop chemistry and make proper adjustments.
"That happens with every other team. We can't use that as an excuse. This is a league, where you have to step up when somebody goes down," Blatche said. "We're going to get there. It could be next game, it could be next practice. It's just a matter of time. We've got to keep on fighting it out."
Hinrich said the Wizards' struggles have more to do with consistency than continuity.
"We've been so inconsistent, one game, play with a lot of energy, a lot of urgency, follow it up with an effort like we had" in Phoenix, Hinrich said. "Hard to find your identity when your play is so inconsistent. Your identity is based on what style of play you play when you have success. We've been struggling to have success, so I don't think we know what our identity is yet. Obviously, we're still searching."
Hinrich added that that the fluctuations in effort have been frustrating because "sometimes, we're playing harder in practice than we are in the games. We just have to get out there and let it all hang out, see what happens. We can play well and still lose some games, but at least we'd still be making strides as far as competing on game days. I felt like there's been times when we really didn't give ourselves a chance."
The Wizards have had their greatest problems on the road, where they have lost their past four games away from Verizon Center by double digits and have been outscored by an average of 16.8 points. "We're 0-10 and we keep saying, if we can't win on the road, there is no way we can be a playoff contender or make the playoffs anytime soon," Wall said. "We're focusing on trying to get better everyday and trying to get a road win."
The Wizards are seeking their first win at Staples Center since Arenas erupted for a career-high and franchise-record 60 points in a 147-141 double overtime victory on Dec. 17, 2006. Because of injuries and his season-ending suspension last season, Arenas has yet to step on that court to face the Lakers since that historic night. And, with him now in a reserve role as he works himself back to that form, Arenas wasn't exactly sure he was ready for an encore performance.
"The way my predicament is now, I wish I wasn't going back there and keep that 60," Arenas said. "I'm just glad to go back home and play in front of my friends."
Young was happy to be back home as well, but he is hoping that the Wizards won't have more practices at UCLA. "My shot was a little off. It's the gym, it's the atmosphere," Young said with a smile. "We can't do this no more."