'We have to get into the flow as a team'

New offensive system and several injuries challenge the Wizards

Caron Butler, shown colliding with the Heat's Quentin Richardson in Wednesday's loss, is trying to find his way in the new offense.
Caron Butler, shown colliding with the Heat's Quentin Richardson in Wednesday's loss, is trying to find his way in the new offense. (John Mcdonnell/the Washington Post)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 6, 2009

After the final horn sounded on the Washington Wizards' 93-89 loss to Miami Heat, Caron Butler stared at the Verizon Center ceiling, rolled his eyes and shook his head. Dwyane Wade was standing nearby, and Butler turned to his former teammate, gave him a hug and whispered something into his ear.

Wade gave Butler another hug, shook his hand and before their hands separated, Wade told Butler, essentially, to be more assertive and aggressive. It would seem like strange advice for Wade to give to a player who has averaged at least 20 points in each of the past two seasons. But Butler's early struggles to find his way in Flip Saunders's new offensive scheme -- and playing alongside Gilbert Arenas for the first time in more than two years -- are evidence of the challenge the Wizards (2-3) face in just the second week of the season.

"We have to get into the flow as a team," Saunders said, as his team attempts to snap a two-game losing streak Friday night against the Indiana Pacers.

The Wizards realized that it would be difficult to establish chemistry early in the season, with the team abandoning the familiar Princeton offense for a more point-guard dominant system. They were incorporating three new players and three others who spent most of last season out with injuries, including Arenas, the mercurial point guard who is responsible for both running the show and playing basketball regularly on a surgically repaired left knee for the first time after a prolonged hiatus.

That process has been further complicated by the Wizards' annual injury woes, which have resulted in Antawn Jamison not yet making his season debut because of a dislocated right shoulder, Butler missing one game with a bruised left knee, and starting shooting guard Mike Miller now expected to miss a week to 10 days after spraining his left shoulder against Miami.

Saunders said that Jamison has been progressing and that he would soon advance to some non-contact drills in practice. He is expected to return next week.

"It's tough to develop the chemistry, until we get everybody out there for long stretches," center Brendan Haywood said. "But injuries have been something we've had to play through in the past. At some point, we'll get everyone out there and see where we're at."

During training camp, Saunders said he would rely on his all-stars to help make the transition easier for everyone else. But Butler, a two-time all-star, appears uncomfortable, drifting between being passive and overly aggressive. He's averaging just 14 points on 39.6 percent shooting.

"I mean, he has to shoot the open shot," Arenas said. "You know, Caron's a rhythm player, so in the old system he had enough time to get into his 'mojo' and shoot those shots. In this system, you have to get a lot of catch and shoots. So the first initial shot he has he doesn't usually take it and then everything just closes up from there. He's just got to get used to catching and shooting."

Saunders said he would have to do a better job of getting Butler more shots, but added that Butler had 10 rebounds against Miami and "is trying to do a lot of other things for us. He's made a point that he isn't just going to rely on scoring 20 points."

Butler scored a season-high 22 points against Cleveland, but he was limited to just nine after the first quarter. The next night against Miami, he contributed to the Wizards falling behind by 19 points in the first quarter by committing three of his game-high five turnovers. He took two shots in the fourth quarter, with his last shot snuffed by Wade.

"Personally, I wasn't satisfied with my play," Butler said. "It's tough sometimes. I know my role. It's just obviously, you're just adapting to the new situation and having guys back and just got to stay aggressive and always be aware. I got caught watching the show instead of being part of it a little bit more and deferring too much."

To this point, Arenas has been the show for the Wizards. He certainly was on Wednesday, when he attempted a season-high 27 shots, missed 18 and turned his teammates into spectators.

In wins against Dallas and New Jersey, Arenas provided a thrilling joy ride, balancing efficient scoring with excellent playmaking. He averaged 30.5 points (on 55.8 percent shooting), eight assists and just three turnovers.

But in losses to Atlanta, Cleveland and Miami, he's averaging 25.6 points (on 37.3 percent shooting), 4 assists and 4.3 turnovers. Arenas's attempts to carry the team through adversity has led to some questionable shots and frustration when his passes don't lead to assists.

After the team had a season-high 28 assists against New Jersey -- a game that Butler missed -- the Wizards have had a combined 27 assists the past two games. Without singling out any individuals, Saunders said that at times, the team gets wrapped up in one-on-one play.

"The ball is sticking too much," Saunders said of a stretch in the first half when he said 32 of the Wizards' 36 shots were contested. "Our players want to have success. When our team is struggling, they believe that they are going to be the one to get the team out of it. And then they try to do too much. You start playing more 'me' than 'we' ball. We have to continue to play more 'we' basketball."

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