It has been a long time since the words "big," "deep" and "tough" characterized Washington's NBA franchise. And you don't want to draw many conclusions based on a home opener against an unimpressive team of Atlanta Hawks. But the first impression of the Washington Wizards is that this is a radically different team than the one we all quickly grew disgusted with the last couple of seasons.
Gar Heard, in his first game as coach, used all 12 players. Eleven of them played double-digit minutes. The 12th man, rookie Laron Profit, was the player Heard assigned to guard Atlanta's best shooter, Jimmy Jackson, in the final three minutes. Stat of the night: The Wizards bench scored 45 points.
On a night when Tracy Murray and Mitch Richmond combined to miss 16 of 21 shots, the Wizards still managed to find five double-digit scorers, three of whom did not start.
Rod Strickland didn't shoot well, but handed out a game-high 10 assists. Ike Austin, in his Wizards debut, didn't score much (four points) but grabbed 11 rebounds in just 22 minutes. Juwan Howard didn't rebound (only two) but he scored a team-high 21 points on a very efficient 9-for-16 shooting performance.
The three new power forwards--Michael Smith, Aaron Williams and Gerard King--combined to make 10 of 13 shots and grab 16 rebounds. Okay, Atlanta did outrebound the Wizards 50-42 and rebounding will continue to be an issue for this team. But Smith was a beast underneath, and the 6-foot-9 Williams blocked Dikembe Mutombo's shot in the final minute.
Most important, the Wizards displayed a physical and mental toughness not seen around here in many a year. Even for one game. It's the reason why the Hawks shot 39.7 percent, and specifically why Mutombo missed 5 of 7 shots. Everything he did was contested, and with a little nastiness to boot.
It's probably an insult to ask an old-school guy like Heard about toughness. It was a must-have trait for guys who played in the NBA when he did. But these Wizards, even three years ago when they made the playoffs, have been soft as Charmin for years and years. "I've been preaching it, I'm looking for it," Heard said.
Going into many a season, you took one look at the Bullets/Wizards as compared with the Knicks, Pacers, Heat and just knew there was no way the games would be competitive. Now, who knows what will happen between now and April, but there's no reason to believe the Wizards can't stand up to those teams physically. Austin, Smith, Williams and King aren't all stars, but it's important for this franchise that they also aren't back-down kind of guys.
"They're athletic, and they go at it real hard," Strickland said. "Mike is just tough. Aaron has great athleticism and he's tough. And Gerard is a hard-nosed guy. And don't let me forget Jahidi [White]."
With any sustained good health, development and chemistry, the Wizards could have five rough-and-tumble guys to pound people around the basket. Big able bodies are necessary the way the games will be officiated this season. Also, a physical front court will go a long way toward allowing Strickland and Richmond to be the high-scoring, offensively dominant back court they are being paid to be.
Forget about Richmond's 3-for-13 shooting night. He hardly played in the preseason because of a hamstring injury and a lot of players would have come out in a suit, not a uniform. Richmond played anyway. "Mitch's timing is off, he's rusty," Heard said. "But he'll be okay. I'm not worrying about Mitch Richmond."
Asked if anything surprised him on his first night, Heard said definitively: "Gerard King. He's kind of a secret. In the first half [when King hit all four of his shots], Mutombo just stood there and watched him shoot. It was like he was playing a game of H-O-R-S-E."
Everything good that happened seemed to be a surprise to the 16,038 in attendance. Through most of the first half, it was the deadest crowd you've ever seen. And for good reason. People are tired of plunking down good money to watch the Wizards stink up the joint. Fans don't trust the franchise can put a quality product on the floor, and many of them are somewhere between angry and indifferent.
They need some tangible reason to hope, and three-quarters of the way through the opener, it appeared they had some. So a strange thing happened: They got into the game a little. They liked enough of what they saw by the final buzzer to even give a standing ovation at the end.
Heard cautioned that the last thing he wanted to see was any sign of overconfidence from any of his players. And they certainly have no reason to be. The Hawks just aren't particularly good. A pile of playoff disappointments led management to try to shake things up, which is understandable, I guess. But trading Steve Smith, one of the enjoyable young men in all of professional sports, for Isaiah Rider is, well, insane. Rider, in case you missed it, wasn't here for his Hawks debut.
Rider's paternal grandfather died, and Rider didn't take the team flight to Washington Monday night. Nor did he call to tell the team that; Hawks officials had no idea where he was or what was wrong. However, he called team officials and said he is in Atlanta and will be attending practice today. The Hawks will go crazy, like everybody else, trying to figure out Rider. There's a track record here, and it's a bad one.
Regardless, from the Wizards' perspective a win is a win. This isn't a franchise that needs to be feeling sorry for anybody. Heard and his players provided a pleasant surprise from tip-off to buzzer. Tonight in Boston, they'll start the long journey toward figuring out whether what we saw here last night was a mirage, or a real reason to be optimistic.
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