Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Wizards Wither

Don't print those Washington Wizards Southeast Division Champion T-shirts just yet. After winning three in a row to start the second half of the season, the Wizards surrendered a 14-point lead to Memphis, losing 108-98 on the road. Maybe surrendered isn't the right word. No, the Wiz pretty much invited the Grizzlies in, gave them the combination to the safe, and fixed them a nice hot meal.

Memphis' Pau Gasol was unstoppable, scoring a career-high 39 points. Pau Gasol sounds like something I would use in the dishwasher on the "Potscrubber" cycle. At 7-0, 240, with long hair and beard, he looks like a giant Basque shepherd in search of his cigarettes and a vintage bottle from La Rioja. And I haven't seen muscle tone this on TV since Mick Jagger in the Super Bowl halftime. But as Gasol might say in his homeland, "Amo este juege." He has great shooting touch to about 18 feet and footwork as good as anybody in the league, including Tim Duncan. Gasol is such a throwback player, he didn't even shoot any threes last night. Name the last guy besides Shaq who scored 39 in a game without shooting a three-pointer. Karl Malone? Moses Malone? Anybody not named Malone? Actually it was Dwyane Wade; he scored 41 points on December 11, against the Wizards (I sense a pattern here).

I know Gasol made the All-Star team, so I shouldn't be surprised, but the Wizards defense made him look like Bill Walton in the 1973 NCAA Finals (UCLA played Memphis in that game, that's a strange coincidence). Gasol has a nice array of moves and is comfortable posting up or facing the basket, but many of his shots went up unchallenged. I would think NBA defenders would be familiar with the basic defensive concept, "Get a hand in his face!"

Let me offer a another tip. When a guy makes 16 shots, none outside 20 feet, you might try denying him the ball. This fourth-quarter sequence best makes my point. The Wizards trailed by six with just under three minutes to play. With nine seconds left on the shot clock, Memphis inbounded the ball to Gasol, posting up about 12 feet from the hoop. Michael Ruffin stripped the ball as Gasol turned to the hoop and the Grizzlies got it back with five to shoot. Somehow Gasol gets loose for a lob and a layup befopre the buzzer. Again , I understand the guy is good, but whether you were watching in Memphis, Washington, or Madrid, you knew they would try to get him the ball.

Gasol's old-school approach obviously rubbed off on Eddie Jones, who decided to play like it was last century, when he was in his twenties. Actually, that's not fair because Jones has gracefully made the transition from a young, lightning quick slasher and powerful dunker to a slower but stronger veteran with three point range who can still get to the hoop a few times a game. At 34, he is on the backside of a respectable NBA career, and last night, he showed the Wizards that once a good shooter, always a good shooter. You might be able to ignore him in the last half of a road trip when his legs have had it but not at home so soon after the All-Star break.

Washington clearly missed Caron Butler, who was scoreless in 25 minutes and was suffering from a stomach ailment. Gilbert Arenas and Antawn Jamison picked up the scoring slack, combining for 72 points, but ultimately it was defense and rebounding that cost the Wizards this game. Memphis is a good team, with almost the same record as Washington's, but, as a fan, I was hoping this would an occasion to watch the Wizards continue to separate themselves from the second tier teams, as they did in Cleveland the other night. Still, they went 8-4 in February after struggling to get to .500, so they just need to move on and win the ones they are supposed to before they head out west at the end of March.

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