Trevor Booker snared a rebound late in the fourth quarter of the Washington Wizards’ 102-95 loss to the Orlando Magic, swung his arms and kicked wildly to get Magic guard Jason Richardson to back away. Booker not only cleared space, but he sent Richardson falling on his backside.
Richardson hopped back up and confronted Booker, as their teammates tried to separate the two, and then grabbed at Booker’s shorts. Booker angrily slapped away and pointed at Richardson, shouting some more. Even after the two were assessed technical fouls and situation was diffused, Booker calmly walked up to Richardson, unaccompanied, to explain the situation.
“He came at me pretty strong, but you know me. I’m not backing down,” Booker said. “I don’t take anything from anybody.”
Too often this season, the Wizards have been a pushover team, cowering at the first sign of struggle. But Coach Randy Wittman has tried to get his players to change that mentality, even if it requires major alterations to his starting lineup. Mainstays JaVale McGee and Nick Young were benched by Wittman in favor of Kevin Seraphin and Jordan Crawford and were used sparingly.
But Booker — the undersize, 6-foot-8 power forward who was benched along with McGee and Young and to start the second half of a loss in Milwaukee the day before — has come to embody the switch, with his relentless attitude providing an edge for the team to remain competitive even after spotting opponents large early leads.
Booker had just seven points, but he added 13 rebounds and two blocks and even found himself matched up against the Magic’s 7-foot behemoth of an all-star center, Dwight Howard, and helped limit him to just nine shot attempts.
“He’s a tough guy to guard and keep off the glass. I thought I was going to be able to move him a little easier, but it was kind of like moving a car,” Booker said. “Might be an SUV.”
Howard had just 14 points, 12 rebounds, five blocked shots and four turnovers, but his mere presence was enough for the Magic (23-13), which connected on 15 three-pointers to defeat the Wizards (7-28) for the third time this season and hand them their sixth consecutive loss overall. McGee said he would have liked a chance to contend with Howard more, but he played a season-low 16 minutes, surpassing his previous season low of 17 minutes the night before against the Bucks.
McGee finished with nine points and six rebounds. When asked if he understood the message Wittman was trying to send by sitting him, McGee replied, “I can’t say I do, but I’m sure I’ll figure it out sooner or later.”
Young played his fewest minutes since the season opener and scored just five points before leaving in the fourth quarter when he suffered a bruisedright knee landing on another player’s foot.
He limped out of the locker room after the game with his knee heavily taped.
“It’s tough. Right now, I got to get them to play at their level. That’s what I’m trying to do,” Wittman said of Young and McGee. “I had to reward those guys that dang near pulled off the game for us [in Milwaukee], and that’s kind of what I was doing. I let them know, ‘Hey, I got to get you guys playing back the way I know you can.’ How long that will take? I don’t know.”
With two of the Wizards’ top four scorers getting limited minutes, John Wall had to take on more of the scoring burden and he carried the Wizards for most of the night, scoring 33 points on 13-of-25 shooting and making jumpers after the Magic practically dared him to take them.
“I just felt in rhythm and made some tough shots and made some easier shots,” Wall said. “I’m just upset we came up with a tough loss again.”
The Wizards might be able to win a few games in the second half of the season, once they realize the game starts at the opening tip instead of when their opponent has built a double-digit lead. The new starting lineup struggled to make shots in the first period and trailed by 17 points in the first nine minutes. The Wizards had a similar performance from the night before in Milwaukee, where they trailed by 22 in the first half, before Wittman benched three starters at halftime, and the replacements helped put the team in position to win before it collapsed in the final 6.8 seconds.
The difference on Wednesday, Wittman said, was more about execution than effort, and the Wizards trailed 46-41 at halftime. Crawford erupted for 14 of his 18 points in the third quarter, as the Wizards used a 12-0 run to take the lead.
Crawford later fed Wall for a fast-break layup that helped Washington push the lead to 60-53.
“The early stretch they went on wasn’t really a big deal,” Crawford said of the Magic. “What can we do? We got to pull out some games. I think we [lost] a couple of games that we can win. We have to turn it around.”
And for a team that has lost 17 games by double digits, but by a combined eight in the past two, Seraphin said the Wizards have adopted a more physical mind-set and won’t roll over. “People have to know when they come to Washington, they can’t come like that and beat us,” he said.