Monday, January 28, 2008

Bench Not Picking Up the Slack

In Washington's 105-102 overtime loss to Milwaukee yesterday, Antawn Jamison scored 21 points and Caron Butler had a career-high 40. Brendan Haywood and DeShawn Stevenson even chipped in 11 a piece. So how, with 90 points coming from their starting five, could the Wizards lose this game?

The answer is simple. The bench, or lack thereof recently.

Twelve points? That's it? Twelve measly points from two former-first rounders a budding center and a couple of supposedly-savvy veterans?

Twelve points is not going to get it done. Blame Eddie Jordan for overworking his starters - see Butler's 51 minutes and AJ's 47 yesterday - but these guys are not making enough of an impact in their time on the floor. Six points for Roger Mason in 14 minutes and a goose egg from Darius Songaila in 16. And what's up with Nick Young? At times he looks ready to take over a game - he had 12 big ones in the win over the Knicks - but then he follows those performances up with tentative, low-scoring efforts. Granted, they're not taking a lot of shots with Butler and Jamison putting up 50-plus attempts between them, but if you want to be on the floor, you've got to prove you deserve to be there.

With a very tough slate coming up, Tough Juice and the starters will definitely need more production from their supporting cast. It's time for the City to show-off his quick scoring ability on a nightly basis, and Mason (who has been very solid thusfar) and Songaila need to get on the statsheet with more regularity as well. As for Andray Blatche, he needs to step up to claim some more playing time from Haywood - who is by far Washington's most-improved player - and then play with the intensity on both ends that he's shown in flashes this season.

If the Wizards are going to continue to compete with the top teams in the conference, they need to have the kind of depth that the elite teams can rely on when their stars have an off night. Right now, that's just not happening.

A Look Ahead
Santa Claus brought the Wizards a cushy January schedule and Eddie Jordan's crew has taken full advantage. With the exception of last week's drubbing in Cleveland, the Wizards have come to play every night and their record shows it. With two games left, the Wiz have an 8-5 January record with marquee wins over Boston (2) and Dallas. But other than a Jan. 2 loss to Detroit and the Cavs game, Washington played just one other team with a winning record (Houston).

But now the road gets much tougher. The Wiz face a brutal February schedule with 10-of-14 games against teams currently with a winning record. They might get a couple Valentine's Day gifts with the pending return of Agent Zero and Etan Thomas that would clearly bolster their lineup. And they also have the added bonus of the national spotlight with seven nationally televised games coming up on ESPN and NBA TV. But Washington needs to come out of February with at least a .500 record to maintain their playoff positioning.

Let's take a look at what's on tap for Tough Juice and company.

Fri, Feb. 1 - v. Utah (26-18) on ESPN - Why is it that all good post players (KG being the one exception) live in the Western Conference? The Wiz get to face a great one in Boozer.
Sun, Feb 3 - v. LA Lakers (27-15) on NBA TV - It's a shame Gilbert won't be back yet for this one. Remember last December at Staples Center?
Wed, Feb 6 - v. San Antonio (28-14) - The champs come to town before the Wizards head West (their next four are on the road).
Sun, Feb 10 - @ Phoenix (32-13) on ESPN - 122-107 winners in Washington and owners of the most wins in the league. Cabbage Blatche led the Wiz with 19 in that game...and we haven't heard from him since.
Fri, Feb 22 - @ Cleveland (24-19) on ESPN - If that 121-85 beat-down doesn't get the Wizards up for this rematch, they all need to get their pulses checked.
Mon, Feb 25 - @ New Orleans (31-12) - With an 11-1 2008 record, the New City Oklahoma Orleans Hornets just might be the best team in basketball.

Next Up
Just before Murderer's Row kicks off, the Wiz get a home-and-home series with the only un-American team in the NBA. Washington edged the Raps 101-97 on December 1, behind 29 points from Caron and 28 points and 14 boards from AJ. Jason Kapono led Toronto with 23 off the bench. But the Raptors (24-19) were without their star, center Chris Bosh, whose team-leading 22.5 points per game likely could have changed the outcome. Winners of seven of their last nine, Toronto scored an impressive 114-112 victory in Boston on Wednesday behind Jose Calderon's 24 points and 13 assists. Both of these teams will be fighting for playoff positioning the rest of the season.

The Wiz get the first of the two-game set at home and they need a win to build some confidence before the big name team's start coming to town. Don't look for any let-up for Caron coming off his 40-point explosion against the Bucks, but I expect to see more of the tenacious defense from the Wizards that led them to those big wins against Boston and Dallas. Eddie Jordan and his captains need to squeeze some more out of their bench and they can look at their opponents as a prime example of how bench production can get you over the hump. The Raps have eight players averaging at least eight points per contest, and they're not afraid to go deep either. Thirteen players average 10 or more minutes for them.

Whether Eddie Jordan is willing to rely on his supporting cast is the bigger question. Eventually, the wear and tear of 40-plus minute nights could come back to haunt Butler and Jamison, so it's better to work Mason, Songaila, Young, Blatche, Pesh and McGuire into the fold now instead of waiting for an injury to force them into action.

I'm looking forward to seeing how well Haywood can match up with Bosh on the glass and if the Wiz can keep Toronto's perimeter players - like Kapono and Calderon - under control. The last time they had back-to-backs against the same team, Washington won at home and lost at the Garden to the Knicks. Before that they knocked off the Celts twice. I like their chances at home Tuesday night. The Wiz get the nod, 98-93.

All photos AP/Getty Images

-- The Tar Heel

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