By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 15, 2010; 12:18 AM
At the rate that the Washington Wizards are losing games and losing players, it's getting more difficult for them to break free of these December doldrums. This month has been unkind to Washington, with the Wizards constantly adjusting to different lineups and rotations and their opponents taking advantage of a weakened foe.
With the two-time defending champion Los Angeles Lakers in town, the Wizards were already at a severe disadvantage at full strength, but they all but conceded a loss hours before the game Wednesday night when starters John Wall and Andray Blatche were ruled out with knee ailments.
Coach Flip Saunders was forced to go with his 10th different lineup in the 23rd game of the season, but within five minutes, one of the replacement starters was already down after Yi Jianlian was forced to leave with a sprained right knee. The Wizards didn't have hardly enough to combat their opponents' superior size, a deflating third-quarter onslaught from Kobe Bryant and an overwhelmingly pro-Lakers crowd as they lost to the Lakers for the second time in eight days, 103-89, at Verizon Center.
The Wizards (6-17) have lost five games in a row, including their past two at home, which had been the one place the team showed some semblance of being a successful team. "It's tough. That's part of the NBA, some people have injuries, but you hate to be one of those teams that keeps having players hurt," Nick Young said after scoring a game-high 21 points.
Young continued to shoot the ball well against his hometown team, but he was held to four points in the second half and was the poor soul who had to defend Bryant when the five-time NBA champion decided to end the suspense of a mundane game during a personal 12-2 run - in which Bryant hit three three-pointers and made three free throws - that stretched the Lakers' lead to 23 points. Bryant led all scorers with 24 points, with 16 coming in the third period, and was serenaded every time he stepped to the foul line with chants of "MVP!"
"Kobe's the type of player, he's like a savant, the more the challenge, the more he rises to the occasion. I knew he was going to get aggressive," said Saunders, who called Young and Gilbert Arenas aside moments before the run - after Bryant missed three free throws - to warn them that Bryant would come out to bury them. "That's why he's going to go down as one of the greatest to play the game."
Arenas had a game-high 10 assists but struggled mightily with his shot, as the bigger, stronger Ron Artest helped harass him into missing 10 of his 15 field goal attempts. Lamar Odom had 18 points and 10 rebounds, Pau Gasol had 16 points and nine rebounds, while reserve Shannon Brown added 16 points off the bench for Los Angeles. In his season debut, Lakers center Andrew Bynum had seven points and four rebounds.
Wall missed his eighth game of the season, this time with right knee tendinitis. Wall has been dealing with the problem since summer league and Saunders said the problem might not go away.
"I don't think, with his situation, that he's ever going to be pain-free from that, so what we're going to do is monitor him," Saunders said of Wall, who was limited to eight points, six assists and five rebounds in his last game Friday against the Knicks. "Some situations, we have to make sure we get it right. We get him healthy, get him where it's manageable where he can play and play at the high level he needs to play at. No question, when he's not physically right, he can't play at the same level. If can't play at the same intensity, same enthusiasm and aggressiveness, then he's not the player that John Wall is."
Blatche missed the final two games of the Wizards' West Coast trip, against the Lakers and Sacramento, with a left hip contusion. He returned to score 14 points in 40 minutes on Friday against the Knick, but suffered some swelling in his left knee the next day. Blatche had his knee drained on Monday night, which made it easier for him to move without discomfort, but he was held out of the morning shootaround.
Saunders gave Yi his second start of the season, but he wasn't on the floor very long. He hit a 19-foot jumper to give the Wizards a 6-4 lead but was finished a few minutes later when he fouled Artest (10 points) and Artest landed awkwardly on the same right knee that Yi hyperextended on Nov. 13, which forced him to miss nine games. Yi had to be assisted to the locker room by teammates Hamady Ndiaye and Cartier Martin.
Yi walked gingerly out of the arena wearing a knee brace and said he would receive an MRI exam on Wednesday. "I still feel a little bit sore. Some pain is there," Yi said. "I'll probably take some time. I don't know how long."
Despite losing Yi, the Wizards led, 24-22, at the end of the first period when rookie Kevin Seraphin (six points, nine rebounds), tipped in a missed jumper by Young. But the Lakers opened the second period with a 10-0 run and later took a 57-46 lead into the break. With the Lakers ahead, 77-64, in the third quarter, Bryant set out to demoralize Young as he knocked down three-pointer after three-pointer. After each made basket, Young simply lowered his head and ran back on defense.
"He gave me the wink, calling me young fella, teaching me the ropes. He's a tough player. That's why he's one of the greatest," Young said. "You ain't going to stop Kobe Bryant. He's going to find a way."