Brief glimpse of something good
The Washington Wizards can, on occasion, play some decent basketball. It's often mixed in with some really bad basketball, so you have to look for it. But it's there, in fits and starts.
There were more glimmers of good play than usual during Monday's matinee at Verizon Center, where the Wizards took a 108-101 victory over the Utah Jazz. Of course, there was also a fourth-quarter fold, but this time - miracle of miracles - it wasn't fatal.
A layup and free throw by John Wall gave the Wizards a 14-point cushion with 5 minutes 47 seconds remaining. Because of their recent chokes - such as blowing an eight-point lead with 40 seconds remaining against Sacramento last week - no one thought it would stand up. Sure enough, the Jazz chipped away while the Wizards went more than two minutes without scoring. When Utah cut the lead to three with 1:26 remaining, there were doubts. Lots of doubts.
"They made a tough run," said Wall, who had 19 points and a career-high 15 assists. "We did a great job of keeping our composure."
The kid speaks the truth. Nick Young hit a 23-footer with 40.9 seconds remaining - credit Wall with the assist - and the rookie drew two fouls and hit three of four free throws. Just like that, the Wizards had their 12th - and best - victory of the season.
A large share of the credit goes to Andray Blatche. That's right, that Andray Blatche. He had 21 points, 11 rebounds and 4 blocked shots, one of those when he raced down the length of the court and denied Raja Bell what had appeared to be the easiest layup in history. It was "one of his better all-around games," said Coach Flip Saunders. Young had 25 points, including three baskets from behind the arc, and JaVale McGee, despite early foul trouble, contributed 11 boards and a timely put-back slam dunk late in the fourth quarter.
There were other glimmers as well, glimpses of a team that doesn't always execute the fundamentals. In the first half, Wall dished out 12 assists, but he also lost the ball too often by driving a step or two too far into the lane rather than pulling up and shooting or dishing off. Kirk Hinrich had a mental lapse at the end of the half and passed to Wall rather than taking the final shot at the buzzer. There were errant passes and defensive lapses and silly turnovers - Wall alone had seven, and admitted afterward, "I've been careless with the ball."
So are the young and often-discombobulated Wizards really learning? Was Monday's game a sign of better things to come - say, a road win - or was it a fluke, a one-game aberration in a long slog of a season?
"As coaches you always consider yourself as a teacher," Saunders said. "You have the ability to mold players as they're young. The challenge is, it takes time to mold them, just like your kids that are growing up. You hope that the things that you teach them when they're younger carry through to when they get to be teenagers.
"With us it's the same thing. You work with them, you keep on working with them, and every day they get a little bit better and better. I look at our team and where we're at, I look at the development of Nick Young, he seems to be doing it, Andray and JaVale are having career years and I look at John averaging nine assists a game, there's only been three players in the history of the league that have done that as rookies.
"I think as these guys do those types of things, even though we're not winning as many games as we'd like to, you can see that eventually we're going to get there because if these guys keep on developing the way they are we'll keep on getting better and better."
It would help the process if the Wizards could play all 82 games at Verizon, where they are 12-8. Instead, they'll drag that 0-19 streak to Milwaukee, where they face the Bucks on Wednesday, If they lose, they'll be the sixth NBA team in history with a streak of 20 or more road losses. The record for longest road losing streak at the start of the season is 29, set by Dallas in 1992-93.
Could this streak become historically bad? Perhaps. After Milwaukee the Wizards come home for two games - including one against the defending Eastern Conference champion Celtics. Then they go to New York and come home to face Denver (with or without Carmelo Anthony?) before a killer four-game trip to Oklahoma City, Memphis, Dallas and New Orleans. The weakest road opponent on their upcoming schedule: the Cavaliers on Feb. 13.
Here's the crazy thing: The Wizards are only 41/2 games out of eighth place in the Eastern Conference. If they had won even a quarter of their road games, they'd at least be in the conversation. Instead, the conversation is all about getting that elusive first win.
"It's going to always be tough to win on the road, when you go to somebody else's building, because the crowd is not going to be behind you," said Rashard Lewis, one of the few veteran voices on the team. "It seems like it's you against everybody out there and when you make a mistake or they make a run and the game's not going your way, you can't put your head down and give up. Got to keep playing. With these guys, it seems we hold our heads down and it takes you out of the game. If you stay focused, play hard and if you make a mistake, you've got to keep playing. Nobody is perfect."
Certainly not the Wizards, not now and not any time soon. But there are glimmers, and for now that's going to have to be enough.