The Washington Wizards have completed slightly more than one quarter of their season and still have not crafted a winning streak of more than two games. The chance to equal the only positive surge--established in mid-November--comes tonight at MCI Center against the decently rested Utah Jazz and their venerable but still effective inside-outside combination of forward Karl Malone and point guard John Stockton.
The Wizards were impressive in their latest game, a 10-point road victory Saturday against the defending NBA champion San Antonio Spurs, and will be trying to latch on to one or two positives to keep that momentum going. Defense and shooting guard Mitch Richmond seem the best possibilities.
"Defensively," Coach Gar Heard said after a two-hour practice yesterday, "that was our best effort of the year."
The key on defense is containing Malone--and that did not go well at all when the Jazz, which has won five in a row, beat the Wizards eight days ago at home. Against Michael Smith and Aaron Williams, Malone hit 11 of 18 field goals, 10 of 14 free throws and had 11 rebounds in 41 minutes.
"He runs the floor so well," Smith said, "so the first thing you've got to try and do is stop his points in transition. Then you try to make him shoot jump shots, limit the times he sets guys up with his passing."
Williams played just four minutes during the 102-96 Jazz victory, mostly because he was called for five fouls.
"Hopefully, that won't happen again," Williams said. "I didn't learn much from that game, but I did learn that Karl Malone gets a lot of calls."
Richmond is among those not surprised that the Jazz have pulled within a game of the Spurs in the Midwest Division with its recent burst and that Malone, 36, and Stockton, 37, have remained so effective. Malone has nearly twice as many rebounds as anyone else on the team, and Stockton's assist-to-turnover ratio is well above 3 to 1.
"A lot of people have been writing 'em off," Richmond said, "but they still keep on ticking. They're still doing what they came into the league doing. And [the Jazz] beat a good young Toronto team Sunday on the road."
The Jazz was in complete control of the Raptors when the bench triggered a spurt early in the fourth quarter that expanded a 15-point lead in a 103-88 victory.
"We're getting better," guard Jeff Hornacek said after the game. "It's hard to explain, but we're not just out there playing. We're showing some determination. Guys are more inclined to help each other on defense. . . . We've always been a team that needed to play together and, the last few games, it seems like that's what we're doing."
On offense for the Wizards, Richmond once more has rediscovered his touch from the outside. He has averaged 23.2 points in his last five games while making 42 of 81 shots.
"I've got my rhythm back," he said. "If I don't shoot well now it's not because I'm out of rhythm. It's just because I'm missing."
Heard's goal of establishing a home-court presence has not come close to being realized. The Wizards have lost their last two games at MCI--to the Cleveland Cavaliers and Sacramento Kings--just before the four-game road swing that ended with the victory in San Antonio. Their home record is 3-7.
"We've had our moments," Heard said, "but we haven't been consistent. When things go bad, that's when you need support. I think our fans are like our players in a sense. When things are going good, everybody's happy. When things start going a little bit downhill, the players start pressing too hard and the fans start getting on the players too much.
"If we can just put together another consistent game, follow up the one we had in San Antonio with another one, we'll go from there."