For the first 17 minutes of the Washington Wizards’ season debut, the fans at Verizon Center had to wonder if there were dramatically improved players in those impressive new red, white and blue uniforms.
Fired up to kick off a season that was delayed by nearly two months, the Wizards provided a clinic on ball movement and defensive tenacity, and took a 21-point lead over the visiting New Jersey Nets. But the excitement and adrenaline provided from a flashy, laser and pinwheel introduction eventually subsided and the positive vibes came crashing down late in the third quarter when Nick Young fell to the floor, grimacing and later had to be carried to the locker room with a jammed left foot.
Any good feelings were all gone after a disheartening and disconcerting 90-84 loss that set an ominous tone for this truncated, 66-game season.
Coach Flip Saunders complained of selfish play, Andray Blatche called out the coaching staff for the play-calling on offense and rookie Chris Singleton questioned the team’s desire to win.
“It’s a fine line. Is it trust? Or is it, ‘I think that I can make a play to get us going again’ and you try to do it individually,” Saunders said. “In our league, you can’t do it, unless you’re one of the elite players. We don’t have anyone that’s at that elite status right now like [Nets all-star guard] Deron Williams.”
Blatche — who welcomed the 17,102 fans before the game, declaring, “This is your captain” — took the criticism personally. In his seventh season, Blatche has pledged to take on a leadership role with the team. But as he sat in his locker room, dejected and still wearing his uniform as his teammates were showering, Blatche placed the blame on Saunders for not giving him the ball where he wanted after he finished with 11 points and eight rebounds and was outplayed by his counterpart, Kris Humphries (21 points, 16 rebounds).
“I said that I need the ball in the paint to be effective. You can’t keep having me pick and pop and shooting jump shots. Give me the ball in the paint,” Blatche said after going 5 for 13 from the field. “That’s what I’m most effective at. I’ve been saying that since training camp — I need the ball in the paint. I don’t want to be the pick and pop guy that I used to be. Because it’s not working for me. I’m not saying the offense has to flow through me, but I prefer to be in the paint.”
Young led the Wizards with 16 points in 18 minutes off the bench, giving Washington a 38-17 lead when he made three free throws with 7 minutes 21 seconds left in the second quarter, but it was downhill from there. The Nets outscored the Wizards 41-19 over the next 10 minutes, taking a 58-57 lead when Williams buried a three-pointer in the third period.
Young had a momentary scare in the third quarter, when Blatche collided with Humphries and fell on the heel of Young’s foot, causing him to collapse. Hamady Ndiaye and Jan Vesely helped carry Young to the locker room.
“I thought it was over for a minute,” said Young, who got his foot re-taped, worked out on the practice court and returned, though somewhat hobbling.
When asked about Blatche’s comments, Young said, “’Dray’s trying to be a leader this year, and sometimes he lets things get to him. You’ve got to let things bounce quick and get back in the game. I say he’s going to learn from this game.”
The Wizards will be able to take plenty from their first game, as they opened, as Saunders said, “doing it the right way.” They scored the first eight points of the game and forced turnovers on the Nets’ first three possessions. They built a sizeable lead by sharing the ball, making the extra pass and making easy baskets.
“After we was up 20, we relaxed,” said John Wall, who was severely outplayed by Williams (23 points, eight rebounds and eight assists).
Unlike last season, when he swayed and dipped his way into the home opener with a dance and victory, Wall took a more reserved approach during pregame introductions, quiety running to the court instead of grooving to the music, and struggled. He scored 13 points but couldn’t shoot from the field (3 for 13) or the foul line (7 for 13). He had six assists, finding Singleton and Roger Mason for back-to-back jumpers to give the Wizards a 74-66 lead early in the fourth quarter.
“After that, I feel like we shut down,” Singleton said. “I feel like all the energy was gone and we didn’t want it anymore. It’s something we’ve got to change around here.”
And, with the Wizards trailing, 87-84, with 17.9 seconds remaining, Wall took an outlet pass from Ronny Turiaf, dribbled up the floor and tried to find Jordan Crawford (15 points) in the corner. Humphries intercepted the pass and Blatche immediately lifted his hands to his head as the Nets went back up the floor. Wall finished with a team-high four turnovers.
“I should have passed it right away,” Wall said. “We had some great opportunities but did not do a good job closing out the game.”