When Andray Blatche heard that he would be making his third start of the season in last night's game against the Minnesota Timberwolves and would be assigned the task of defending his childhood hero, 10-time all-star Kevin Garnett, his eyes widened and he felt a ripple of nervous energy roll through his stomach.
However, after Garnett scored on Blatche early in the first quarter and punctuated the basket by yelling, "Now I'm going to bust your [butt]," Blatche swapped admiration for determination and responded with a seven-point, 12-rebound effort that helped the Wizards open the second half of the season with a 112-100 win over the Timberwolves.
Gilbert Arenas led the Wizards (30-21) with 38 points on 12-of-24 shooting and DeShawn Stevenson made 9 of 11 shots en route to posting a season-high 23 points, but the Wizards owe the victory to less-heralded contributions such as the one from Blatche, the skinny second-year forward who has steadily emerged while Antawn Jamison has missed the past seven games because of a sprained left knee.
Garnett finished with 26 points and 13 rebounds, but the 6-foot-11 Blatche, who appears to be about an inch shorter than Garnett, made his hero work and forced him into some turnovers and one offensive foul with solid defense while nearly matching Garnett's rebounding output.
"He is the player I used to watch when I was little," said the 20-year old Blatche, who like Garnett bypassed college on his way to the NBA. "When I went to the courts, I used to practice all of his moves. He is the player I idolized and is still my favorite player in the NBA. The fact that I came out and played really well against him means a lot to me. I'm excited to go home and watch the game over and over."
Before leaving the court, Garnett turned to Blatche and said, "Good game," but from the opening tip to the final buzzer, the veteran tried to get in the younger player's head with trash talk and a few pointed elbows.
Blatche kept his composure and never backed down. After Garnett made a turnaround jumper over him in the first half, Blatche answered by making a shot over Garnett. Later, Blatche made a three-pointer from the top of the key to give the Wizards a seven-point lead that eventually swelled to 15 in the first half.
When asked about Blatche after the game, Garnett offered only a stiff "no comment."
The Wizards outscored the Timberwolves 31-19 in the first quarter, shot 50.6 percent for the game, totaled 23 assists and received 22 points from the bench. Arenas continued to struggle with his jump shot and made only 1 of 8 three-point attempts, but was aggressive off the dribble and made 13 of 15 free throws.
Stevenson, who has scored 10 or more points in six of the last eight games and is shooting a career-best 50.1 percent on the season, effectively put away the Timberwolves when he followed a missed layup by Arenas by grabbing the rebound and dribbling out to the baseline, where he made a turnaround jumper over Ricky Davis to give the Wizards a 102-92 lead with 2 minutes 23 seconds remaining.
Jordan hasn't asked Blatche, Stevenson or reserve forward Darius Songaila to make up for Jamison's production on their own, but in consecutive wins over Philadelphia and Minnesota, those three players and the rest of the lineup has chipped in. The Wizards are 3-4 without Jamison, who is expected to miss another two to four weeks.
"We've figured out that it's not going to be one particular guy whose going to come in and give you the 20 points and nine rebounds," said forward Caron Butler, who finished with 15 points and four rebounds. "It's going to be a collective effort and the last two games, we've had guys step up and accept the challenge. Guys are coming off the bench contributing in a major way and you've got to be proud of them."