By Jason Reid
Washington Post Sports Writer
Sunday, February 13, 2011; 4:26 PM
But it's now must-win time for Washington. It's the first game of the John Wall era the Wizards cannot afford to lose.
A potential defining moment during an otherwise wasted season is within the Wizards' grasp at Cleveland's Quicken Loans Arena. After 26 straight losses away from Verizon Center - including 25 this season - Washington still hasn't established a floor on the road as it continues the long process of rebuilding.
Sometimes, simply being better than the next guy is enough. If Cleveland is your upcoming opponent, being better than the next guy is a must.
"It's sad to say but it's one of those games you can't lose," Wizards guard Nick Young said.
The Wizards haven't had any in that category for some time. Even their recent victory over Milwaukee at Verizon Center doesn't qualify. The Wizards ended a losing streak at eight games, but their futility on the road could present long-term problems. And Sunday's game may be Washington's best opportunity for a road win this season.
The Wizards' road losing streak is the NBA's third longest all-time to start a season (Dallas tops this list with 29 straight). If the Wizards can display moderate progress on the road, starting with a victory against Cleveland, and Wall's psyche isn't damaged from all the losses in his rookie season, team President Ernie Grunfeld and Coach Flip Saunders should view the season as a success.
No matter what the team's final record is, just breaking through on the road (and Wall completing the season unscathed mentally) would be a significant development for the future of the franchise.
Winning on the road separates the good teams from the bad in the NBA, and "I do think once we win one road game, we're gonna settle down," Saunders said. "We'll play with a lot more confidence and be able to win some others on the road."
Sunday's game should be the one. It could provide the spark.
Effort and execution generally are a formula for success on a team's home court in the NBA. Not so on the road. I learned that while covering the Los Angeles Clippers for two seasons. Effort helps for about three quarters when you occupy the visitors' locker room. Execution makes a difference until the final minutes of the fourth quarter.
Winning on the road in this league is all about star power. Finishers make the difference. Those are the guys who can score late in games, when defenses tighten with outcomes undecided, or get favorable calls from referees when they can't.
The elite teams have two or more proven finishers. Good teams have at least one. The Wizards have none.
Wall is a future star point guard who should eventually receive preferential treatment from referees, possibly as early as next season, but he's still learning he doesn't always have to show he's the fastest person on the court with the ball in his hands. Referees generally won't reward rookies while they're still refining things, and the immensely talented Wall is a work in progress.
This wasn't unexpected. Saunders realizes he would seem a lot brighter to some Wizards fans if he had Kobe Bryant, LeBron James or Dwyane Wade to close road games. Second-tier finishers such as Atlanta's Joe Johnson or New York's Amare Stoudemire also would have made a big difference at the end of Washington's last 26 games in opponents' arenas.
For a young team like the Wizards, still in search of its identity, proving to themselves that they can get over the top in a hostile arena could provide an enormous boost.
Against Cleveland, Washington likely has its best chance to "get the momentum going" on the road, said Patrick Cohn, a sports psychologist based in Orlando. "Sometimes it can be one game where things really click for your team and you can spark that momentum and you can spark that confidence."
The opponents' home-court advantage Sunday won't be as tilted as usual against the Wizards because the Cavaliers are, well, the Cavaliers. Cleveland has the league's worst record after having its best in each of the previous two seasons.
But the Cavaliers haven't given up. They proved as much in ending their losing streak in overtime against the Clippers on Friday night. Now, the Cavaliers don't want the Wizards' road streak to end on their floor. The Wizards have to expect a fight. And if they are ready, this is one they can win on the road.
"A lot of our young guys have not been in pressure, playoff-type situations," Saunders said. "This is as close to a playoff game because of the pressure from both teams. You're gonna see how guys would react."
Washington is a long way from the playoffs, but the point is understood. It's time the Wizards accomplished something on the road.