Washington Wizards Coach Doug Collins issued the challenge during training camp. On Thursday, 38 games into the season, the team's big men finally measured up.
As a unit, Brendan Haywood, Christian Laettner, Kwame Brown and Etan Thomas dominated Orlando, combining for 45 points and 20 rebounds in a 108-93 victory over the Magic. And with leading scorer Jerry Stackhouse sidelined for the second game in a row with a pulled left groin muscle, the big guys' contributions could not have come at a more critical time for Washington (20-19).
"When [inside players] show they can catch that ball in the post and do something with it, there is a trust that's built," said Collins, who five months ago implored his young inside players to carry the team this season. "That's what it comes down to. And the more success they have, the more they are going to get the ball. . . . I was a guard, and if I didn't think that the [big] guy was going to catch it, after six or seven times, I wouldn't have the confidence to throw it in there anymore."
Said Haywood: "We are a better team when our big guys play the way we did. We have to be a factor if we are going to beat the top teams because it gets the inside-outside game going, and that's where everything starts for us."
The play of the Wizards' inside players has often been the team's Achilles' heel this season. Haywood (7 feet), Brown (6-11) and Thomas (6-10) have at times bobbled passes, been stripped of the ball and failed to convert seemingly easy layups. When the big men struggled, the guards abandoned the inside game. And when that happened, the confidence of Haywood and the others sagged as they became frustrated and sometimes lost their focus.
There was none of that Thursday.
"If [Collins] wants us to carry the team, then we can't give up on Brendan if he doesn't score the first time he touches the ball," Laettner said. "Or if I don't score on my first post move. Maybe we need to force [the ball] back in there a little. If the coach says we need to keep with it, then that's what [the guards] will do."
When the big men score, rebound and block shots as proficiently as they did against Orlando, it lifts every aspect of the Wizards' game. It clears the way for guards like Larry Hughes and Michael Jordan to bound into the lane. And it also produces open shots on the perimeter.
"Our big guys are young, with the exception of Laettner," Hughes said. "And when things aren't going well they get frustrated. But on Thursday night, they stayed in the post and kept at it. And when they are playing like that, it gives us the confidence to go to them."
Jordan said after Thursday's game: "Our biggest focus is we've got to get the ball inside. We can't sit there and live on the perimeter shot. Our big guys are very important for that to happen. . . . It doesn't stop with one game. We have to continue to work on that. We want to throw the ball inside but you've got to be able to catch the ball. You've got to be able to do something with it and establish a threat inside and that will open up everything else."
When the Wizards host Philadelphia today, Collins said he will know quickly whether the big men's play Thursday was a one-time performance.
"Philly has more size than Orlando, certainly," Collins said. "But that doesn't mean our [big guys] can't be effective. We're still going to get them the ball and see what they can do."
Wizards Note: Stackhouse is scheduled to be examined by doctors again today, Collins said, and the team hopes to have a better idea when to expect him to return from the nagging injury, which initially was expected to keep him out just one week but now appears to be more serious.
"He had the same type of injury in Philly, and he felt he came back too early from that and it continued to bother him," Collins said.