Al Thornton, Josh Howard lead new-look Wizards to victory

Josh Howard and Al Thornton help Washington knock off Western heavyweight Denver, 107-97, and improve to 2-0 since its purge at the NBA trade deadline.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 20, 2010

Josh Howard came behind Denver Nuggets forward Kenyon Martin, batted the ball in front of him, then sprinted ahead toward the sideline to track it down. He hurdled Ty Lawson to get the ball and soared feet first into the stands, landing on a cup of beer, knocking over another and causing a huge splash that drenched the folks in the front row. After landing on one fan's lap, Howard looked down and smiled. He later wiped the beverage off his leg and shoe, as fans at Verizon Center stood and applauded.

"It's go hard or go home," Howard said after scoring 20 points in the Washington Wizards' surprising 107-97 win over the Nuggets on Friday night. "I think those fans enjoyed that. Hopefully that'll make them come back for more."

A round of trades in less than a week may have reduced the number of all-stars on the Wizards' roster, but Howard and the misfit replacements have raised the effort and energy level the past two games. They have also forced a once-drab home crowd -- which had grown accustomed to the malaise of this moribund season -- to suddenly show some emotion.

The fans -- and even the boisterous players on the Wizards' bench -- had plenty to cheer about during a dramatic fourth-quarter flurry on one of the league's elite teams. Whether it was Howard kicking over beers, Nick Young drawing a charge on Nuggets all-star point guard Chauncey Billups, newcomer Al Thornton flustering NBA second-leading scorer Carmelo Anthony or James Singleton providing a vicious block on reserve J.R. Smith.

"I told our guys at shoot-around, 'We got to play like a bunch of mad dogs.' That's how we played tonight," Coach Flip Saunders said. "We went after loose balls, rebounded. We didn't give up on plays. The crowd gets into it; the guys get juiced up."

Before leaving for Washington on Thursday night, Billups made a comment that might explain the slight advantage the Wizards could have over the next few days.

"I don't even know who's on their team anymore," Billups told reporters in Cleveland. "How are we going to scout that?"

With the win, the Wizards (19-33) matched their win total from last season. Their remarkably quick facelift left nearly everyone confused and unprepared on Friday, as the team welcomed a new player (Thornton) who is actually "happy" to play for them, while another (Zydrunas Ilgauskas) arrived with the hopes of receiving a contract buyout. In his Wizards debut, Thornton scored a team-high 21 points and finished the game by blocking Billups's layup.

Thornton, whom the Wizards acquired from the Los Angeles Clippers in the Antawn Jamison deal, arrived in Washington at 2 a.m., but had enough energy to hustle and muscle Anthony, who had 23 points but missed 13 of his 20 shot attempts. At one point, Anthony shoved Thornton after an attempted steal.

"It was a blast out there," said Thornton, who wasn't able to participate in the morning shoot-around because Ilgauskas had yet to have his physical. "I'm happy to get the minutes and show what I can do on the court. I think I was restricted a lot in L.A. I wasn't playing pretty much at all."

The Wizards trailed, 78-65, when Billups (28 points) hit a three-pointer with 2 minutes 54 seconds left in the third period, but they rallied back with a 23-9 run over the next 12 minutes, taking an 88-87 lead when Howard converted a three-point play. Howard later hit a 19-foot jumper for a 95-93 lead with 5:51 left and the Wizards never trailed again.

The new-look Wizards will play their first road game together on Saturday in Toronto, then have a day off to settle down from the whirlwind of the past few days. The locker room has already taken on a different look, as photos of Antawn Jamison, Caron Butler, Brendan Haywood, DeShawn Stevenson and Dominic McGuire were taken down, with unpacked boxes for Quinton Ross and Thornton in front of their stalls.

"You might take a link out the chain, but it's got to be replaced, right?" said Singleton, who had seven points, nine rebounds and two blocked shots. "You can't replace Antawn Jamison, he's a great player, but when we got traded, we came in with a positive attitude. You can't come in here with your head down, having problems. Each guy come who came here has one goal in mind and that's win a championship and make the organization better."

Andray Blatche had 18 points, all in the first half, with 11 rebounds. Young and Earl Boykins each added 12. Howard, back in his familiar No. 5 -- available after the Wizards traded McGuire at the deadline -- said that he hasn't given up on the team making a run at the playoffs, which seems unlikely with the team 7 1/2 games back with 30 games remaining. "Why wouldn't I? If we can get that eighth or seventh spot, that would be great," Howard said. "You got to focus on yourself and the guys that are here, regardless of what happened before I got here or the other players that got traded. Got to focus on being professional and being positive in the situation. I'm just trying to motivate these guys and keep them going."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company