The Washington Wizards started and finished the game with their starting back court on the bench.
Point guard Rod Strickland was held out of the starting lineup for disciplinary reasons and shooting guard Mitch Richmond sat out with a sore left knee. The rest of the starters also were on the bench by the end of the game, a 109-95 loss to the Seattle SuperSonics before 13,213 at MCI Center, many of whom booed the team off the court.
The SuperSonics shot 52 percent and demoralized the Wizards with numerous timely shots. It was Washington's fourth consecutive loss after a season-opening victory over Atlanta.
Although Richmond's availability was in question coming into the game, Coach Gar Heard's decision to bench Strickland for being late to practice on Tuesday came as a surprise. Heard made his decision shortly before game time. Strickland, who finished with 14 points and four assists, declined to comment.
It was the third time in Heard's brief tenure as the Wizards' coach that he has not started Strickland and the second time it occurred for disciplinary reasons.
"He broke a team rule," Heard said. "We have rules that everybody has to abide by. He was late for practice. I knew he was ready to play. It was just a point where you can't come into practice real late. You must make a concerted effort to get here. It was nothing major."
The temporary disciplining of Strickland and Richmond's one-game absence did not seem to factor into the outcome. Instead, it was the Wizards' failure to overcome a small deficit at a crucial point in the game that again cost them a victory.
For the second straight game, the Wizards staged a third-quarter comeback to pull within two points, only to fall apart long enough for their opponent to cruise down the stretch.
"We get within two, we miss a couple shots, they make a run, all of a sudden we get back into our old habits," Heard said. "We have to figure out a way to get over the hump. We have to get the losing mentality out of our minds. Mentally, we make too many mistakes going down the stretch.
"When the game is on the line, we have to come through and make big plays."
The Sonics (4-1) did just that after Washington's 8-0 run in the third quarter narrowed Seattle's lead to 76-74. The Sonics missed four shots during the Wizards' surge but after Juwan Howard missed a mid-range jump shot that would have tied the game, Seattle guard Vernon Maxwell drilled his third three-pointer to put the Sonics up by five.
Howard narrowed the margin to three with a short jumper but the Sonics closed the period with a 10-2 run, capped by Gary Payton's three-pointer to end the quarter. It was the third consecutive time that Seattle drilled a three-pointer to end a period. The Sonics finished with nine threes overall.
"Those were demoralizing," said point guard Chris Whitney, who started for Strickland and finished with 10 points and 11 assists. "They're going to make some big shots during the course of a game but those three threes at the end of the quarter. . . . We can't have that."
The Wizards finished the third period trailing 89-78. They got as close as 95-86 in the fourth after Strickland scored on a driving layup, but over the next 5 1/2 minutes, they scored just three points and turned over the ball three times as the Sonics broke out to a 107-89 lead.
"When they cut our lead back to two, we didn't let them run a lot of things they were trying to run," said Maxwell, who led six Sonics in double figures with 24 points. "They missed a couple shots, we hit some big threes and that's what I think opened it up for us. They're more passive over there. . . . That last run, it took all the breath out of them."
The Sonics shot 51.7 percent and Gary Payton tied a career-high in assists with 17. It marks the second straight game an opponent has tied or reached a career high against Washington. Nets forward Keith Van Horn registered a career-best 18 rebounds against the Wizards last Sunday.
Washington shot 47.8 percent with Howard scoring a team-high 16 points. The Wizards' gaping flaw--the main area Heard was referring to when he talked about his team reverting to old habits--was their failure to get to the foul line, where they were just 7 of 12.
"Teams take us to the basket and we're taking jump shots," Heard said.
Rookie Richard Hamilton, who started for Richmond, scored 15 points and grabbed four rebounds. But after the game, Heard said Richmond was sorely missed, in part because of his leadership, in part because teams are exploiting Hamilton's defensive liabilities. Heard said the decision to rest Richmond came on the advice of team doctors. Richmond was unavailable to comment.
"They're either posting him up or taking him off the dribble," Heard said of Hamilton. "He has to learn how to play defense. If not, I can't put him on the court."
Heard said his task now is to keep his players from falling into a losing mind-set.
"This team needs to learn how to play through things when it's going bad," he said.