It's going to be much more difficult this time to do any of it -- to win 45 games or more, to beat good teams on the road, to beat the contenders at home. Everything is going to be harder than it was last season. The second time is always harder, as the Washington Wizards are finding out in this first month of the season. The Wizards lost their fourth consecutive game last night, this one at home to Denver, 108-105. They didn't lose as many as three straight last season until February.
But it's four straight now, with the next three games on the road and everybody peering in to see how the Wizards handle this slide, how they handle teams coming at them hard because they were good last year. In fact, this was the kind of game the Wizards won last season, a close game at home, a game in which they erase a 14-point deficit with a third-quarter run. This is the kind of game last year they would win -- get Gilbert Arenas to the line or make a defensive play in the final seconds. But this year isn't last year. Everything so far this year is a chore.
As Arenas said before the game: "There's no sneaking up on anybody this season. That's over. It's not going to happen."
George Karl, who has coached the Cavaliers, Warriors, Sonics, Bucks and now the Nuggets, said: "Players think once you do it, it's easier to do it again. Actually, I think it's harder to do again. There's too much of what I call mental happiness, too much, 'Oooh, we're good.' "
The Wizards aren't the only team finding that to be true. In fact, all of last year's surprise winners (Phoenix, Seattle, Chicago, Denver) have struggled to some degree through the first few weeks of this season, though the Nuggets are starting to put it all together now in winning four straight. Teams expect last year's upstarts to be good. "We're not going to beat Charlotte by 20 points this season," Arenas said. "We're going to have to play better overall. We're going to have to use these early weeks to figure out who's better starting and who's better coming off the bench. We're going to have to make adjustments, and we'd better do it fast."
They're going to have to find out who, in the absence of Larry Hughes, can create his own shot besides Arenas, whose 36 points and 10 assists (with just one turnover) weren't enough. Batman needs a Robin, but there's no such partner so far.
A 5-1 start has turned into 5-5 after losses on the road in Cleveland, Minnesota and New Jersey, and now the loss to the Nuggets at home.
After the loss in New Jersey the other night, there was a palpable anger in the locker room, in the coaches' quarters. And it lasted for a while, into the next day, in fact. There was an NFL-Sunday level of tension in and around the team. "Everybody," Arenas said, "was obviously mad and upset. And to tell you the truth, I was happy about seeing that because it means we care."
Nobody is questioning the Wizards' recognition. The issue is whether they can do something about what they're seeing. It would be a little easier to respond if the Wizards had the same team they had last season but they don't, not with Hughes gone and Caron Bulter, Antonio Daniels and Chucky Atkins aboard. "That's not," Coach Eddie Jordan said, "a continuation."
Of course, no players is as aware as the coach is of how difficult it's going to be the second time around. Jordan quoted Pat Riley, who once said, "The innocent climb leads to complacency and the disease of Me." Jordan repeats that phrase like a Bible verse, and maybe it is scripture for a coach trying to get his team to improve on last season's march to the second round of the playoffs. "Pat is right on it," Jordan said before the game. "That first successful year is really difficult to take another step. The 'disease of Me' that Pat's talking about isn't totally what we're going through."
The Wizards are trying to figure out who should be in the starting lineup and who is best helping off the bench. To that end, Jordan sent the veteran Daniels to the bench so he could run the reserves when the time comes and started the more offensive-minded and more explosive Jarvis Hayes.
Sometimes, it's finding out which Wizards are more energized on a given night. "Number one," Jordan said, "is people are really loading up on Gilbert. They're making it really hard for him to find his [driving] lanes."
That means that the Wizards have to spread around the scoring and they have to get more inside scoring. And that's difficult to do against a team as good as the Nuggets, even if Denver is having to play without power forward Nene (out for the season with a knee injury suffered in the opener) and the explosive Kenyon Martin, who will miss a few more weeks recovering from surgery.
This was one of those games a team with playoff ambitions needs to win, seeing as it's the only home game in a stretch of seven. But the Nuggets, even shorthanded, are a bad matchup for the Wizards. Denver can light it up even against decent defensive teams. And the Wizards struggle mightily on defense. With less than a minute to play and Washington trailing by a point, Andre Miller blew past Hayes for a layup as if it were the first minute of the game.
It's very difficult for the Wizards to shoot 40 percent and win because they can't hold teams like Denver to a low-enough percentage at the defensive end. The Nuggets, with Carmelo Anthony leading the way with 28 points and 11 rebounds, shot 46 percent. Anthony, who freely admits he is motivated by the way Dwyane Wade and LeBron James are playing, has lost 15 pounds (he looks smaller than the 225 he says he is) and says, "I hate the phrase 'breakout year' and I wish I could find some other words to describe it -- but I feel I'm going to have a breakout year. I'm really confident right now about me, about the team."
His confidence will soar if the Nuggets keep getting performances like this from Marcus Camby, who had 24 points on 10-for-15 shooting, 14 rebounds and 6 blocks including the one to seal the game. He was as effective as Elton Brand was in the Clippers' victory over the Wizards earlier this season, which all goes to underscore how easy it is for opposing big men to have their way with Washington's front court. Little Earl Boykins, all of 5 feet 5 of him, outrebounded Washington center Brendan Haywood, 4-2.
Certainly, the Wizards know with each loss and desperate victory that this season will be a grind. The Eastern Conference is more difficult than the Western Conference now, and the big boys aren't taking the Wizards for granted. Instead of grabbing a lead of some kind on struggling Shaq-less Miami, the Wizards are just concerned with getting themselves together, with finding a way to keep their heads above water tonight in Orlando, with dealing with their new status, a new season and unwanted early results.