By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 6, 2011; 1:48 AM
The day after his mother's death, Coach Flip Saunders's heart was heavy and hurting, but he still managed to have somewhat of a sense of humor as he prepared to lead the Washington Wizards against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Saturday. Saunders left the bedside his late mother, Kay, behind in suburban Cleveland on Friday and was told after his plane landed in Washington that she had died. He said he decided to still coach against Minnesota because "this is something she'd want me to do."
But when he showed up at Verizon Center, Saunders discovered that leading scorer Nick Young was out with the flu and starting small forward Josh Howard was sidelined with a pulled left hamstring. "Maybe I should've went back to Cleveland," Saunders said with a laugh, "I don't know."
The Wizards made his decision worthwhile. With Trevor Booker climbing Timberwolves all-star forward Kevin Love for emphatic, game-turning dunks and Maurice Evans hitting clutch three pointers in the fourth-quarter, and Andray Blatche and John Wall playing solid all-around games, Washington snapped a seven-game losing streak and pulled out an emotional 103-96 victory.
"It meant a lot, because I know how much an avid supporter she is of me, individually, but also how much a supporter and fan she was," Saunders said. "As one of the guys said, 'Your mom's probably got her Wizards pom-poms up there, she's cheering a little bit.' "
Blatche had a game-high 20 points and Wall nearly had a triple-double with 18 points, 11 rebounds and 8 assists, but those efforts likely would've been for naught without Booker, who overcame a stomach virus to score seven points - including collecting dunks on three consecutive possessions in the fourth quarter that helped the Wizards build a lead they never relinquished.
The Wizards (16-45) entered worried about how to keep the double-double machine Love off the glass, but discovered that the best way didn't come by boxing out, but by Booker simply jumping over him. Love had 20 points and 21 rebounds to record his 50th consecutive game double-double and 11th game - third consecutive - with at least 20 points and 20 rebounds. He gave the Timberwolves an 85-84 lead when he made a reverse layup with 5 minutes 47 seconds left in the game, but then reserve Cartier Martin found Booker under the basket for a dunk.
Booker, whom Minnesota drafted for the Wizards with the 23rd pick as part of a trade at last June's draft, was far from finished, as he soared high above Love to rebound a Martin miss and dunked with two hands, sending a charge through the building. "I just saw the ball up there so I tried to go up and get it," Booker said. "Then I saw that I was pretty high. I just decided to dunk it."
Wall missed a short jumper on the next trip, and Booker snuck in front of Love again to dunk the ball. As Wall slapped Booker in the back of the head, a stunned Love stared at the rim, wondering where he came from. "I got off on the 10th floor," Love said. "He got off on the 12th."
Booker admitted that he felt weak, taking medication before and during the game for an illness that he has battled the past few days. The dry erase board in the locker room afterward read: "Booker + Imodium AD = Win."
Evans, who arrived in the Kirk Hinrich trade with Atlanta, scored 11 of his season-high 15 points in the fourth quarter and hit three three-pointers, with his last jumper from long distance pushing the Wizards' lead to 97-90 with 2:28 remaining.
Understandably, it was the most difficult game that Saunders ever had to prepare for, as he dealt with the pain of the loss of his mother, tried to make plans for her wake and funeral, and received more than 200 e-mails, text messages and phone calls from people offering condolences. But he admitted that experiencing the camaraderie of being around his staff and players helped him cope better.
"You're with guys that you're familiar with, and you've been through a lot, so it's a way to maybe escape a little bit if you can," said Saunders, who will not be with the team in Detroit on Sunday, when the Wizards face his other former team, the Pistons. "When the game starts, you pretty much forget about everything. You get entrenched with the game, that's why I said it's somewhat of an outlet."
After the game, the players took a moment of silence to acknowledge Kay Saunders, whom her son said was a huge basketball fan and remained sharp, even at age 90, with her ability to evaluate players and teams. "She's a special person, no question," he said.
Wall mentioned his admiration for Saunders's ability to put aside his personal pain and do his job. "That was tough," Wall said. "I don't know how he came in practiced. He found out the same day his mom died when he landed, so it was tough for him. We wished his family the best and hope the funeral will go well and hopefully, we can win [in Detroit] for him."