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Wizards 84, Trail Blazers 82: Three thoughts

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Sports,Pick and Roll,Craig Stouffer

I’ve sort of forgotten how to handle a Wizards victory. It’s been since April, after all. (Remember when the Wizards had a six-game winning streak that was supposed to carry over this season?) So this might appear a bit rusty. But after Washington avoided joining the nine-team club with 13 or more defeats to start a season – and instead beat Portland, 84-82 – let’s get to these three thoughts:

It was a relief to see, until it was painful to watch. The victory seemed inevitable with the combination of how the Wizards played coming out of halftime and the inefficiencies of a Portland team that doesn’t have great size, depth or defense. The lead was four when Trevor Ariza made it 63-59 midway through the third quarter, but it felt like more. And then it was more, a lot more, once the Wizards bench got things going. Chris Singleton, Nene, Jordan Crawford and Martell Webster all scored during the game-changing stretch that extended the margin to 15 points early in the fourth.

It was enough of a buffer when the offense started to break down, and it broke down badly. Crawford, despite shooting 7-for-14 for the night, took poor shots, as did A.J. Price, Webster and even Nene. When that didn’t happen, Ariza fumbled Singleton’s pass out of bounds and Crawford also committed a turnover trying to push the ball in transition.

Emeka Okafor was calm and collected for his game-winning free throws, but the Wizards remain in desperate need of an ability to execute down the stretch. Otherwise, every game they have a chance to win is going to play out the same way, and most of them probably won’t have as fortunate an outcome.

Nene’s mythical Brazilian charm has worn off. Sure, the veteran big man still finished with a positive plus-minus, if only barely (+1). But the “MVP!” chants were probably a bit much, and the ease with which he orchestrated the Wizards offense and influenced the defense against Atlanta and Charlotte both weren’t there against the Blazers. Portland made up for being undersized with quickness that prevented Nene from turning the corner. Wizards coach Randy Wittman still credited Nene’s presence on the floor, and there’s no doubt he gives a lift to a young team that is desperate for leaderships, but he has returned to mortal status.

The other side of this is that Nene is still working himself back into the rotation, and the variety in his offensive arsenal should improve as the games go on. For example, the midrange jumper that was so effective at the end of last season still hasn’t been seen. There’s also no reason to believe he can’t play every night going forward. My guess is that the growth in his minutes still comes slowly, especially if Okafor and Kevin Seraphin can combine to play effectively.

Bonus item: Speaking of minutes, Jan Vesely played 0.2 seconds. After starting four games in a row, the bottom has fallen out of Vesely’s season. He played eight minutes against San Antonio, and then he was called off the bench only to guard the inbounds pass on the final play of the game against Portland.

There were curious questions when Vesely was moved into the starting lineup on Nov. 17; it didn’t make sense given Wittman’s supposed desire to reward guys who were playing well. If the current trend continues, it can only signal that the Wizards’ patience last year’s sixth overall pick is beginning to wane and that his future is beginning to get murky.

Maybe it was the blowout loss to the Spurs that did the trick. That game was brutal, and there was every reason to think it would sink the Wizards further. Instead, it appears to have hardened them.

At the very least, it opened Wittman’s eyes to a different approach, leading to him opening the floor for his players to vent and speak prior to and during practice on Tuesday.

Webster and Bradley Beal said they both made it clear that the players weren’t ready for the coach to take the blame for the position that they were in. Wittman, who at times has some control freak tendencies, in turn backed off, too.

“I think it started the other day at practice,” Singleton said. “After we lost to San Antonio, everybody was in here early getting work in, and then we just basically came together, like we need turn this around for ourselves. Not for anybody else, but for ourselves. We don’t want to go down in history as one of the worst teams ever and so we’re just going to work our butt off, and then we just started talking more. We started talking more, and that led to talking out there [in the game], which we have problems with, and then I think we executed a lot better tonight, and I hope it rolls over.”

If nothing else, this stands in contrast to Wizards teams of the past couple seasons. (Actually, let’s back up one second. This team shouldn’t have been 0-12 in the first place. The roster isn’t great, but it’s not terrible either, even without Nene and John Wall. What happened over the first month of the season was unexpected by almost all accounts. The Wizards are currently still a bad team, but they’re not a group that is getting what they deserve. There is nuance.)

Wednesday’s result is proof, for the moment, that there is a search among each player, personally, to take responsibility for getting the Wizards out of the hole they’ve all helped to dig themselves into. The coach is always the fall guy, but the NBA is a player-driven league. There appears to be recognition of that inside the Washington locker room, and even if it is just one solitary win, that’s something to build on.

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