Al Thornton struggles to find his role with Wizards

By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 7, 2011; 12:23 AM

Al Thornton caught a pass from Kirk Hinrich, saw Atlanta Hawks center Zaza Pachulia standing in the lane and knew immediately that punishment was in store for anything in his path. Thornton took a drop step, cocked the ball behind his head and jack-hammered the most ferocious dunk at Verizon Center this season.

The slam was replayed on the giant scoreboard twice during Saturday night's game, in slow motion and regular time, and elicited the same reaction from fans and Thornton's towel-waving Washington Wizards teammates on the bench. Pachulia's teammates could only express sympathy for being on the embarrassing end of a possible poster.

Thornton didn't deny that the anger behind his dunk was partly the result of his diminished role and lack of playing time in recent weeks. "You could say that. You could say that, man," Thornton said with a laugh. "But I'm just trying to keep a level head about it. Of course, you're frustrated and you want to play more. It's just the way it is."

Thornton changed his diet, arrived for training camp in the best shape of his career and was the starting small forward when the season began, serving as one of the most efficient players on the team with scoring and defensive intensity. He had scored at least 20 points in three of the first six games, but after suffering an abdominal injury and later aggravating a left ankle injury suffered in the preseason, his production has declined each month.

And with the arrival of Rashard Lewis in the Gilbert Arenas trade, and Josh Howard's brief return, Thornton was pushed further back in the rotation. His fluctuating playing time reached its low point on Dec. 29, when Thornton received a DNP-coach's decision for the first time since he joined the Wizards in a three-team trade with the Los Angeles Clippers near last season's trade deadline.

Thornton has scored in double figures in just five of his past 20 games since then, trying to adjust to being in a role that doesn't allow him to affect the game the way he would like. But he understands that the reason for his current situation is the same problem that haunted him in Los Angeles, where he would inexplicably dominate and disappear from game to game or quarter to quarter. He showed the same tendencies in just two months with the Wizards last season.

"I think I don't have nobody to blame but myself," said Thornton, who is averaging a career-low 8.2 points and 3.3 rebounds this season. "It's the inconsistency. That's what it boils down to. I don't point the finger at no one. I blame myself."

When asked about the root of his inconsistency, Thornton said: "That's a great question. I don't know. It's been a number of things, an ankle injury, trying to bounce back, but I don't know. I really don't know. Right now, I'm not playing that much and I'm just trying, every time I go out there, to make the best of my opportunities. I'm going out and playing hard, trying to earn minutes. Whether it's two minutes or four minutes or eight minutes or 15 minutes, make that be the best while I'm out there."

Thornton could possibly lose more playing with Coach Flip Saunders saying recently that he plans to develop undersize rookie power forward Trevor Booker into a small forward so that he can get on the floor more. Howard is also expected to make a return after missing the past month because of a troublesome left knee. Thornton, who has started 23 games this season, will be a restricted free agent this summer and said he has spoken with Saunders about his role, but added, "I'm not going to go into detail with that."

Thornton scored four points in 18 minutes as the Wizards (13-37) lost their eighth consecutive game, 99-92, against the Hawks on Saturday, after playing just 12 minutes combined in previous losses to New Orleans and Orlando. Thornton has stewed at his locker room stall after some games, quietly pondering his predicament. After others, Thornton has left the locker room and immediately gone to the practice court to take shots.

His thunderous dunk against the Hawks was almost impossible to miss, but few noticed Thornton before he went to the locker room. He stopped to give a hug to his mother, Philomena, who flew in on Saturday to provide some support.

"For the most part, when you're going through something like this, you're not getting the playing time or not doing well on your job, or not doing what you're capable of, yeah, you have to have somebody to talk to and support you," Thornton said. "I just try to stay positive about it. That's the only thing that gets me through it. In the past, I would kind of get down and just couldn't recover from it. I'm just trying to stay positive. That's the only thing that's helping me accept my role."

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