By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 13, 2011; 12:28 AM
Rashard Lewis knew once the ball left his hands that he had made a terrible decision. He rushed a pass before Kirk Hinrich was prepared, and threw it a few inches behind him, giving Sacramento Kings forward Francisco Garcia the opportunity to sneak in and steal the ball. The blunder was compounded when Al Thornton fouled Garcia as he made a layup, making the Kings' unlikely comeback on Tuesday more probable.
Lewis grabbed the ball after it came from out of the net and angrily slapped it, realizing that the error was inexcusable. He knew that the Washington Wizards still had a timeout, the game was quickly unraveling, and his young teammates are looking to him - as the most seasoned player on the roster - to make better decisions in the closing seconds of tight games.
"Stupid pass on my behalf," Lewis said of his last-second turnover, which helped the Kings inch closer to forcing overtime. But Lewis provided some calm for his team shortly thereafter, when the stunned Wizards headed to the huddle to get prepared for an extra frame that seemed impossible with the team leading by six points with 14 seconds left.
"Some of us put our head down going into the overtime, like 'How did we let this game get away?' " John Wall said after the Wizards' 136-133 overtime victory on Tuesday night at Verizon Center. "Rashard did a great job of telling us, keep your head up and keep going. We stayed strong and came away with a tough win."
After starting the season on a veteran, playoff-tested team in Orlando, Lewis finds himself in an unfamiliar position after joining the Wizards in a trade for Gilbert Arenas on Dec. 18.
Once content with blending in and quietly going about his business, Lewis is now the oldest and most accomplished player on a young roster and looked upon for leadership and positive reinforcement. Lewis has a few gray hairs after spending 13 seasons in the league, but he still remembers being that pimple-faced teenager who arrived in the league out of high school during the lockout-shortened season in 1998-99.
"I thought about that. In my Seattle days, I listened to the veterans, trying to figure my way out and not stepping on anybody's toes and just learning from what they were teaching me. Now it's almost like it's the other way around," Lewis said. "A lot of guys looking at me. Every time I say something, they looking up to me. They're listening, they are all ears and I've got to go out there and lead, not only by talking, but by example in practice, getting shots up or lifting weights. Whatever it takes."
Wall has credited Lewis for helping him since Wall returned from a bone bruise under his right kneecap on Dec. 26. Not only has Wall increased his assist numbers with Lewis providing a pick-and-pop big man who can spread the floor, but Lewis also has provided some words of encouragement as Wall adjusts his game until he regains his explosiveness.
"He's just always telling me to keep my head, keep my focus and if you have a bad game, it's going to come back to you," Wall said. "The first game I came back against San Antonio, I wasn't making shots and turning the ball over. He said, 'It'll all come. It comes with rhythm.' He's a great person I'm looking up to, taking a similar role, like Gil."
But Lewis isn't just the sage veteran passing along wisdom, he is also making considerable contributions with his scoring and rebounding. Lewis had 16 points and 10 rebounds against the Kings, giving him his fourth double-double in 10 games with the Wizards. Lewis didn't have any double-digit rebound performances in his first 25 games with the Magic and hadn't had a double-double since last March.
Lewis is averaging 13.4 points, 8.2 rebounds and 3.6 assists, showcasing a more well-rounded game after being little more than a spot-up shooter the past few seasons in Orlando. "I'm starting to fit in in practice, and every game," Lewis said. "Just trying to show them how to play the game the right way. It's not all about trying to score the most points or filling the stat sheet up. Sometimes, it's about sacrificing and making the right pass or making the extra pass or getting the rebound. Getting the hustle point in order to try to win ball games."
Lewis has played in two all-star games and made two trips to the Eastern Conference finals, reaching the NBA Finals in 2009. Coach Flip Saunders said Lewis's postseason experience has been beneficial to a young team with only three other players who have started a playoff game. "Guys who have gone through NBA Finals and that, they understand and have an ability to make adjustments and do things on the fly," Saunders said. "Very professional, how he goes about doing things, how he prepares. The more he's around here, the more comfortable he'll continue to get."
With Andray Blatche likely to miss Thursday's game at Minnesota with a sprained right shoulder suffered late in the win on Tuesday, Lewis may be asked to do more to help the Wizards finally put an end to their 0-18 record away from home. Lewis is hoping that he and the Wizards will make fewer mistakes than they did in the last game.
"Nobody is perfect. You're going to make mistakes, but you've got to do it with a lot of energy and effort or try not to make the same mistakes over and over again," Lewis said. "Playing in Orlando, it was a veteran team and we didn't make a lot of mistakes. Now I'm back on a team that's a young team, a very talented team, but we've got to learn. If you make a mistake, so what? Keep going."