Nets 89, Wizards 83
-- Back-to-back road losses to the Cleveland Cavaliers and Minnesota Timberwolves could be chalked up to spectacular performances by LeBron James and Kevin Garnett, respectively.
However, in dropping their third consecutive game Saturday night, the Washington Wizards couldn't grab a stat sheet, shake their heads and declare themselves victims of a great individual outing.
No, on this night, the culprits wore Washington colors and opened the door to defeat with sloppy turnovers, passive defense and horrendous free throw shooting.
An 89-83 loss to the New Jersey Nets at Continental Airlines Arena dropped the Wizards to 5-4 and wiped away the good vibes that permeated MCI Center just one week ago, after Washington waxed the defending champion San Antonio Spurs to improve to 5-1.
The Wizards shot 37.8 percent from the field, made only 17 of 31 free throws and 4 of 13 three-pointers while posting a season-low 83 points against the Nets (5-4). Forward Antawn Jamison led the Wizards with 23 points, 13 rebounds and 6 steals, but guard Gilbert Arenas struggled, finishing with a season-low 17 points on 6-of-17 shooting.
Arenas battled foul trouble throughout the game, wasn't credited with an assist and turned over the ball six times in 36 minutes. At the start of the second half, with the Wizards trailing 46-39, Arenas was on the bench while Coach Eddie Jordan went with a lineup of Antonio Daniels, Jarvis Hayes, Caron Butler, Jamison and Brendan Haywood.
"It was a coaching decision to go with a five at the start of the third quarter that I thought was going to show a little bit more discipline than the first half, execute a little bit better, that would make a commitment to defend and to execute," Jordan said, later adding, "This is about the Washington Wizards, not Gilbert Arenas."
After tearing it up in home wins over Seattle and San Antonio last weekend, Arenas struggled on the road trip, committing 18 turnovers in three games and looking uncomfortable with the defensive pressure coming his way.
Arenas responded to the benching by shouldering blame.
"It was just one of those days where mentally I wasn't into it," he said.
"I'm an all-star, averaging 27 and I wasn't playing that way in the first half so he decided, you know, to make a rotation and bring me off the bench to see how my attitude was," Arenas continued. "I was frustrated. It happens in this game but I came back in the second half strong but we just couldn't come up with the win."
With the Wizards trailing 64-55 with 2 minutes 55 seconds remaining in the third quarter, Arenas checked in and briefly gave his team life. Arenas hit a three-pointer and then, in the fourth quarter, scored eight points. However, the Wizards couldn't draw closer than 83-80 down the stretch.
After Caron Butler made a long jump shot, Vince Carter drew a foul on Arenas and made both free throws, stretching the New Jersey lead to 85-80. Arenas turned over the ball on the next Washington possession but after a miss by Clifford Robinson, Butler made 1 of 2 free throws.
Washington's last hopes for a comeback were dashed when Robinson beat several Wizards to an offensive rebound following a Richard Jefferson miss with 20 seconds remaining.
The frustrating thing about this loss was that unlike the Los Angeles Clippers, Cavaliers and Timberwolves, New Jersey didn't play particularly well. Carter (19 points, 6 rebounds, 5 assists) led five Nets scorers in double figures but New Jersey also struggled from three-point range (3 of 12) and the free throw line (18 of 28).
Washington's previous low output came in its 86-75 win over the Knicks in the second game of the season. The Wizards didn't lose three consecutive games last season until early February, when they dropped four straight. Washington responded to that bad run by winning four in a row, all of them at MCI Center, where the Denver Nuggets will pay a visit Tuesday night.
How this Washington team responds remains to be seen. The most curious observer will be Jordan, who was visibly frustrated by his team's performance Saturday night.
"We've said all along with this team: we won't know where we are until we face adversity," Jordan said. "We've been facing some adversity here in the last week. There are some small cracks in the armor -- whether they are discipline cracks or emotional cracks or just not playing together cracks -- but it's my job to seal the cracks up."