Game Notes: Wolves at Wizards
Wizards win following last-minute Jamison trade.
by Alexandra Rush
The final couple of hours leading up to the Washington Wizards’ game against the Minnesota Timberwolves last night featured seemingly more gossip and rumors than the New York Post’s Page Six.
With the trade deadline about a day away, players, coaches, media members and fans around the Verizon Center were buzzing about extra moves the dismal, out-of-the-playoff-picture Wizards may make. And sure enough, even though Antawn Jamison’s face flashed amongst animated flames on the arena’s megatron, a pending deal to send the former franchise player to the Cleveland Cavaliers as part of a three-team trade was reported about 20 minutes before game time. The arrangement also rids the Wizards of the recently acquired, disgruntled journeyman Drew Gooden, adds Cavs center Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Los Angeles Clippers forward Al Thornton to the team’s roster and gives Washington a 2010 first-round draft pick and the rights to Emir Preldzic, who was selected by Cleveland in the second round of last year’s draft.
This major shuffle occurs five days after a trade that swapped Caron Butler, Brendan Haywood and DeShawn Stevenson for the Dallas Mavericks’ Gooden, Josh Howard and Quinton Ross.
So how did the remaining and new Wizards players respond to last night’s sudden shake-up that dismissed the locker room leader Coach Flip Saunders called “one of the most professional guys I’ve ever been around”? By beating the Timberwolves 108-99. Wizards role players transformed into play-makers, Mike Miller continued his hot shooting streak and the defense limited Timberwolves leading scorer Al Jefferson to just 2 points in the second half, allowing Coach Saunders to show his old team how he can weather the politics of Washington basketball.
But the Wizards didn’t start out working any magic. Overall, players played the first half as if they were still mourning the team spokesman that Mike Miller gushed is “a great locker room guy.” The Wizards, whose starting lineup included 7-0 JaVale Mcgee in place of Jamison, didn’t seem to recognized that they nearly matched the Timberwolves’ size in the paint. Washington players seemed uninspired without Jamison’s clutch outside shot and athleticism, while Minnesota’s Jefferson took advantage of his opponents’ lackluster down-low defense by scoring 10 points in the first quarter. The Timberwolves really didn’t look like the second worst team in the League.
That is, until the Wizards’ Andray Blatche began to play with the intensity of someone desperately trying to keep his spot on a very fickle team.
“I’m glad I still have a job,” Blatche said before the game, echoing typical Great Recession sentiment. And the newly crowned Wizards elder statesman (he has been on the team for five years, which is now more than any active player on the team) plans to keep it.
He played the whole first quarter, scoring 13 points and grabbing 7 boards, ending the rebound slump that plagued him the previous four games. Blatche initially carried the team by driving down the lane for powerful layups, making shots and drawing fouls for three-point play chances, and dribbling the length of the court for a fast-break. He finished the game with a career-high 33 points and 13 rebounds.
“I feel the organization has higher expectations of me [following the recent trades]” Blatche said.
And even though Blatche cooled down in the second half, his teammates followed his victory-minded trend, outscoring the Timberwolves by 16 points in the third quarter. McGee, who finished with 14 points and 11 rebounds, truly announced his presence by running down the baseline to snag an alley-oop pass from Randy Foye for a two-handed slam. Mike Miller shot 5-5 from beyond the arc, including a defiant swish coming off a hard screen James Singleton set on Ryan Gomes. And Howard, a former All-Star who has been troubled by injuries for most of this season, put up 14 points – about three more than his season average.
And the Wizards’ inside defense swarmed and swatted, forcing the Timberwolves to kick the ball out to trey range, where they missed a couple of key shots down the stretch. After Gomes bricked a wide open baseline three that he had plenty of time to set up, it was clear Minnesota had run out of steam and was playing like a team with nothing to look forward to.
The Wizards’ aggressive play in the second half noticeably elevated the mood of Verizon Center attendees who Coach Saunders called “about as quiet of a crowd I’ve ever been around [prior to the game].” But this was only one game against a Timberwolves team that is last place in its division.
The Wizards traded Jamison to free up cap room for next year and to get a shot at an extra hot draft prospect. But the changes also make way for players such as Blatche to mature and assert their role in the organization.
“I’m gonna try my hardest to keep this locker room from being goofy,” Blatche said. “Jamison made it a serious environment. This is a job and I want to keep it that way.”
The Wizards play the Denver Nuggets Friday. Blatche and company will have to prove they have earned their jobs against far more difficult competition.