A day after the Washington Wizards lost for the 11th time in 16 games to sour further a season that began with high expectations, Wizards center Ike Austin bemoaned the lack of on-court discipline he believes has characterized the season and kept Washington from reaching its potential.
"I think that's the main thing wrong with our team," said Austin after yesterday's practice session at MCI Center. "We don't have any discipline at all. . . . There's no respect for our team. The Clippers, the Vancouvers, they look at us on paper and say, 'Oh, wow, that's a good squad.' Then, they play us and say, 'They don't play hard.' "
To Austin, Wednesday's loss provided a perfect example. The Wizards played well only in stretches and blew several late chances to tie or win the game. Austin, who left the game in the third quarter with a slightly sprained ankle, said he felt no ill effects from the injury yesterday and is expected to start tonight against the division-leading Toronto Raptors.
First-year coach Gar Heard has been highly critical of his players and been unwilling to tolerate poor play. Shortly before Austin made his comments after practice yesterday, in fact, Heard cited his displeasure with the team's inconsistency.
"We're playing better. Unfortunately we're not consistent enough," he said. "That's the one thing that irritates me more than anything else."
But despite Heard's no-nonsense approach, Austin said, changes in attitude have been slow to occur, and the Wizards have failed--thus far--to acquire the demeanor of a winning team. He said the environment in Washington bears no resemblance to the highly charged atmosphere that surrounded him when he played for the Miami Heat and Coach Pat Riley in 1996-1997 and 1997-1998--which happened to be the only top-notch seasons of Austin's six-year career.
Heard "is trying to bring" discipline, Austin said. "It's tough. It's a tough job. You've got to understand, [it was] the guys Pat had, the reputation he had in the league. Coach Heard is a great coach, but also, he's got to learn. It's his first time being a head coach. You can't fault him; you can't fault us. It's a new coach; a new system; new players--and a lot of different attitudes."
Austin laid partial blame on injuries and missed practices, which he said have prevented the development of team chemistry. Austin himself missed all but one preseason game with a strained left hip flexor. Guard Mitch Richmond has struggled with injuries, and point guard Rod Strickland has missed numerous workouts with a variety of ailments.
In Miami, Austin said, "there wasn't any messing around. We never had problems outside the court. Everybody played together, everybody played hard, and everybody wanted to win."
With the Wizards "we have to get more spacing, more movement, and we have to move the ball around," Austin said. "We get an eight- to 10-point lead, and all of a sudden we forget how we got it. Everybody starts doing what they want to do."
Heard agreed, saying, "Everybody on the team is trying to win it himself. The way you get out of a slump is by everybody trying to play together."
Austin has performed solidly but unspectacularly, averaging just under 10 points and seven rebounds per game. Heard said he would like Austin to be more aggressive in the offensive post and against opposing centers. Austin, who had a mediocre year with the Orlando Magic last season after reporting to camp 30 pounds overweight, said he hopes to return to the form that won him the 1996-97 NBA most improved player award. Austin said he is in great shape at 270 pounds and trying to maintain the work habits he learned in Miami.
"The thing for me this year is trying to get myself back to where I used to be," Austin said. "My game is going to get better regardless. I can't hold back because no one else wants to get better."
Asked about that remark, he said other Wizards players also wanted to get better, but that "it's so frustrating, because no one expected it to be like this. We have to find a way to get up out of it."
"He can be one of the top centers in the league," Heard said. "He proved he had the ability to do that."
So what's the major difference between the Austin of two seasons ago and the current version?
"It was the system" in Miami, he said. "We didn't do anything different. I wasn't the first option . . . [but] I was getting stuff off the fast break, a screen slip, those types of things. It's tough when you don't get any easy baskets. I haven't hardly had an easy shot all season. . . . Every time I catch it, I have to make a move to get a shot off."
Nothing, Austin said, has come easy this season, one that has left him, the organization and the team's fans mystified.
"It's difficult," Austin said. "It's just tough overall. Nobody on the team--the coaches, the players, the organization--expected the season to start like this. . . . They make a few moves in the summer and everybody thinks everything is going to be okay. But Coach Heard is learning, and we're learning."
Wizards vs. Toronto Raptors
* Where: Air Canada Centre.
* When: 7 p.m.
* Television: HTS.
* Radio: WTEM-980.
* Records: Wizards 5-11, Raptors 9-6.
* Injuries: Wizards G Laron Profit (tendinitis in left knee), F Lorenzo Williams (recovering from knee surgery), C Calvin Booth (strained right hamstring) are on the injured list. Raptors C Aleksandar Radojevic (left knee) and F Sean Marks (tendinitis in left knee) are on the injured list.