By Gene Wang
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 11, 2011; 11:45 PM
The Washington Wizards have been so dreadful away from home this season that it's only natural for them to peek ahead to Sunday's game at Cleveland, which snapped its 26-game losing skid Friday night against the Clippers, to seek that elusive road victory. Yet another glance at the schedule reveals imminent ruin should players discount the next opponent, which brings the league's best record to Verizon Center on Saturday night.
That would be the San Antonio Spurs, the four-time NBA champions who just won't go away despite reports of their demise. They were supposed to be way too old this season, with Manu Ginobili and future Hall of Famer Tim Duncan into their 30s and point guard Tony Parker almost there.
But the Spurs (44-9) continue to remain relevant largely because of that experience while a youth movement sweeps through much of the rest of the league. Top players such as LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony are in their early or mid-20s, and even younger players such as Tyreke Evans, Derrick Rose and Wizards rookie John Wall often are headline grabbers, as well.
"It's incredible," Wizards shooting guard Nick Young said of the Spurs' dynasty now built around aging players. "I was a kid when they were playing. I've been watching Tim do backboard shots all his career. It's a pleasure to play against them. I know how great they've been together, how much chemistry they've got."
The Wizards (14-37), on the other hand, have labored to find much if any structure this season, mostly because of injuries. They've fielded more starting lineups than Coach Flip Saunders cares to document, and it appears there will be more shuffling against San Antonio.
Swingman Josh Howard had been in line to come back perhaps this weekend, but Saunders did not sound optimistic when evaluating the 2007 all-star's chances. Howard has not played since Jan. 5 against Philadelphia, when he logged just 12 minutes before discomfort from left knee tendinitis forced him from the game. He has played in just eight of the Wizards' 51 games this season.
"I don't know. We'll just wait and see," Saunders said of Howard, who practiced on Friday. "Who knows? He might wake up tomorrow and might feel good, so we'll see."
There's also a wait-and-see circumstance with starting forward Rashard Lewis, who has been playing through tendinitis in his right knee. Lewis is averaging 7.8 points over his past four games, including three points on 1-for-5 shooting in nearly 29 minutes during Wednesday's 100-85 victory over visiting Milwaukee.
Lewis had his knee wrapped in bags of ice during breaks in that game and afterward said it didn't look good. He missed practice on Friday, although Lewis indicated the plan was for him to play on Saturday and evaluate his status for Sunday based on how his knee holds up.
Lewis led the Wizards with 21 points and 12 rebounds the first time they played San Antonio this season. Washington lost, 94-80, at AT&T Center in Lewis's first start for the team after it acquired the two-time all-star by sending Gilbert Arenas to Orlando on Dec. 18.
The Wizards are certain they'll be without Al Thornton on Saturday. The reserve small forward dislocated his right middle finger in practice on Monday while attempting a steal and missed the game against the Bucks. Thornton's finger was in a splint on Friday, and he won't play again until the swelling subsides.
While Washington has grown accustomed to playing without Howard, the absence of Thornton and perhaps Lewis couldn't come at worse juncture. Before Friday night's loss to Philadelphia snapped its four-game winning streak, San Antonio had won each of its past three games by double figures, and all were on the road. The Spurs' only victory by single digits during the winning streak was 89-88 over the reigning NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers, also on the road.
The Spurs played their sixth consecutive road game Friday in Philadelphia and will have completed nine straight once this lengthy trip concludes at Chicago on Thursday. San Antonio, which has been traveling while a rodeo takes place at its arena, also is nearing the end of a stretch of 12 of 13 games on the road.
"We're playing the best team in the league," Saunders said. "They don't sugarcoat it. You know how they're going to play. They're going to defend. They're going to get up and down the floor a little bit more. They're a very veteran team, very savvy. That's the type of team where you've got to eliminate your mental mistakes."