April 19, 2014

Saunders’ lineup changes spark Wizards to first win

“We played as a team.  We didn’t try to do too many individual things tonight.” Wizards head coach Flip Saunders

There was — and perhaps remains — some confusion as to just how much Rashard Lewis and Andray Blatche are banged up for the Washington Wizards right now.  There were conflicting reports about when Blatche knew whether he was in the starting lineup or not.  There were rumors — dispelled by the team and the principles — that Lewis and assistant coach Sam Cassell had a disagreement, leading to his benching against Minnesota Sunday.

Regardless of the circumstances, Saunders alluded to a couple of lineup changes in his pre-game remarks.  Sure enough, Trevor Booker started again for Lewis, and rookie Chris Singleton was inserted in place of Blatche.  The changes sparked this team, especially on defense, and the Wizards played their best game of the season, defeating a weary Toronto Raptors team 93-78, in front of a sparse, but appreciative crowd at the Verizon Center, earning their first victory of the campaign against eight losses.

Booker finished with eight points and six rebounds, while Singleton scored nine points and pulled down nine rebounds.

“I talked to [Blatche] yesterday [Monday] and told him we were going to bring him off [the bench],” Saunders said afterward.  “But he hurt his shoulder in practice yesterday, his knee’s been bothering him, and I told him we needed some offensive punch and some stability from the bench.  Yesterday [in practice] we had the team split up.  He played with the second unit, so did Rashard [Lewis], and they actually beat the first unit pretty handily.  So I thought we’d be better going to that.”

“When we playing like that, I don’t have no problem doing that role,” Blatche said of coming off the bench. “We should have confidence and some kind of swagger about ourselves. We didn’t just win, we actually played well. It’s fine with me, as long as we’re winning. If we’re not winning, that’s when things change.”

The Wizards trailed by three at the end of the first period, a defense-oriented, somewhat sluggish start with both teams trying to clog the lanes and force the other to settle for medium-to-long range jumpers.  But the Wizards broke out in the second, getting contributions up and down the roster, including from little-used reserves Sheldon Mack and Jan Vesely, who got his first significant minutes of the season, contributing four steals and a massive breakaway, two-handed dunk – to the delight of the crowd.

“I think we had a good, solid performance from a lot of players,” Saunders said afterwards.  “I thought Jan, for not having a lot of practice, I thought he really changed the whole game.”

The Wizards ran away from the Raptors in the second half, building a 20-point lead in the fourth quarter.  The team even managed to have a little fun in the process, as a three-on-one turned into the first double ally-oop in team history, as JaVale McGee outjumped John Wall for a feed from Jordan Crawford.  McGee joked in the locker room that he thought Wall was a Toronto defender.  Wall responded that he thought the pass was for him, but smiled and said,  ”You know I ain’t never get one of those.”

Nick Young and Lewis paced the Wizards with 15 points apiece.  Blatche scored nine points on 11 shots and pulled in eight rebounds, including a one-handed grab with his injured arm.

Point guard John Wall had another rough night on the floor, going 3-for-12 and 0-for-2 from three-point range, but contributed nine assists.  He talked about how the defensive pressure turned into some easy, fast-break offense.  “It’s all about effort, and helping each other.  You know if you get beat, someone’s gonna help you.  Sometimes they gonna make tough shots, some open threes.  But we want to be intense, not let them have easy lay-ups, and that’s what we did tonight, make them make tough shots.”

Make no mistake, this team really needed a win tonight against a non-elite team playing its fourth game in five days.  There were still too many instances of players getting caught holding the ball on offense and no one moving their feet to help out.  Toronto forward Andrea Bargnani lit them up for 22 points on 9-of-16 shooting, mostly in the paint.  And they shot just 52.9 percent from the line.

But there was a noticable difference in energy, spurred by Singleton and Booker in the starting lineup.  For now, Saunders is still typifying the moves as injury-related, but if they served a dual purpose in lighting a fire under Lewis and Blatche, especially, then mission accomplished there as well.  At least for one night against a very tired-looking Raptors team.

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