Monday, March 24, 2008

On a Roll at the Right Time

Don't look now but the Washington Wizards are heating up. In the past 11 days the boys in white and blue have knocked off three of the four teams above them in the Eastern Conference playoff standings and are playing as well as they have at any stretch this season.

With Sunday night's nationally televised 95-83 victory over Detroit, the Wiz have won six of their last seven and are 8-3 in the month of March with five games to go. After two weeks of watching the Philadelphia 76ers creep up on their 6th spot, Washington continues to keep Andre Iguodala and company in its rear-view mirror and last week leap-frogged struggling Toronto to take control of 5th place.

The return of Caron Butler has helped kick-start the recent hot streak, but he's not the only reason the Wizards are putting things together just in time for the critical 5-week stretch before the playoffs. The Tar Heel made it over to the Phone Booth and got a first hand view - albeit from halfway up the stairs in section 404 - of a team that's really in a groove right now.

The Wizards (36-33) shot 52.8 percent against one of the league's best defensive teams, took the lead late in the first quarter and never gave it up. They out-scored the Pistons 50-20 in the paint and out-shot them by five at the stripe (17-12).

I saw several quotes from Pistons players after the game - like Tayshaun Prince saying “We didn’t even much at all run our normal plays,” - well, whatever. Sure, you've got a playoff spot locked up but don't give me that we're just experimenting with sets and coasting into April bullcorn. (Also, you wonder why so many people prefer college ball to 'The League' - teams don't have the luxury of taking nights off there).

Essentially, the Wiz out-played the Pistons in all facets of the game. Antawn Jamison had yet another double-double (24 & 12), Caron Butler looked the best his has in any game since his return with 17 points, 5 boards and 6 assists and Brendan Haywood came up big with 16 points. Darius Songaila gave the home team 10 points off the bench and Andray Blatche showed some toughness banging with Rasheed Wallace and baiting the Big Bald Spotted One into a technical - the 13,452nd of his career...or something like that.

Lettuce Ketchup

My apologies for abandoning you over the tail end of last week and through the weekend. I was a bit preoccupied entertaining three British imports and showing them all the best spots and things about our great city (including last night's prime time matchup). So let's re-hash a few noteworthy tidbits to get us ready for the up-coming five game road trip out west.

  • Wow! That was the first word that came out of my mouth when I saw the score from the Wiz-Magic game last Wednesday. Bouncing back from a 122-92 home loss with an 87-86 road win against the division leaders is one thing. But holding Dwight Howard to 3(!!!) points and 14 boards is just ridiculous. The guy is a walking double-double and yet the combination of Brendan Haywood and Andray Blatche transformed themselves into Kryptonite in Orlando. Their activity on the offense end was even more effective than their defense, as Howard was forced to ride the pine pony for much of the night after getting into early foul trouble. Great performance up and down the lineup and yet another credit to Randy Ayers' ability to coach defense.
  • Gilbert Arenas was nowhere to be found when last night's tilt tipped-off (I would know, I had the binoculars in hand). Well it turns out the Hibachi was expecting to make his triumphant return in front of ESPN's Sunday night hoops national audience until the team doctor checked out Gil's knee and determined he needed one more week of rest. Naturally, Agent Zero was a little miffed - apparently more than a little - and he stormed off, telling reporters, “I’m not coming back this year.”
    • The fact that he didn't have a sport coat to wear on the bench only added to his frustration (and was the reason he wasn't on the bench until midway through the half). It's a $10,000 fine if you show up in street clothes that don't include a coat and Gilbert has already shelled out for that one. Hard to say when/if we will in fact see him on the floor next week, but the good news is he did make the trip to Portland for tomorrow night's game - the first stop on a five-game road swing.
  • Nick Young missed his second straight game with a bruised right thigh, leaving the Wiz with only five reserves on the bench. This doesn't sound too serious though, so expect to see the Bean Burrito back on the court at some point in the next couple games.
  • One of the best moments from last night came as the Kiss Camera made its way around the Verizon Center during a timeout. After pausing on several couples, one brother & sister and a father and daughter (not everyone is into robbing the cradle), the camera locked in on former Wizard Jarvis Hayes - who had been booed all night - and a teammate sitting to his left. Hayes simply smiled and shook his head but the camera man didn't flinch. The fans continued to boo as the teammate turned away and put a towel over his head. At the last second, Hayes obliged and gave the teammate to his right a peck on the cheek. It was no Buckhantz-Chenier smooch, but good sport on his part nonetheless.
  • Another highlight: Whenever a Piston would step to the line, the jumbotron operator would flash a giant DOOK (sorry, that's how we spell it) logo on the screen. Naturally, people were already booing and trying to distract the shooter but this made them bring the noise about 50-fold. I know we're in Terps territory and the Devils had just lost to WVU the night before, but really? When it's not even a Dookie at the stripe? Sure. I'm all for it.
  • “Our big guys really took the challenge to make it difficult for him. Not to get him bouncing around and dunking and Supermanning and all that stuff. We really wanted to prevent as many points in the paint as possible and have them beat us from outside.” -- Jamison after the win in Orlando.
Up Next

The Wizards kick-off their five-game road trip in Portland tomorrow night. On their last left-coast jaunt, they man
aged a single win in four games and it took a last-second tip-in against the Clips to avoid coming back with a bagel in the win column.

This time they're riding some momentum and they've got Tough Juice back in the lineup.

The two teams met way back on November 17 with the Wizards blowing out the visiting Blazers 109-90. Six Wizards scored in double-figures in that game, including AJ's 30 and 11 boards and Haywood's 17 and 10.

Portland (37-33) comes into this one having won three-of-four, beating the Clips back-to-back in a Friday-Saturday home-and-home series. And while they're record would be good enough for 5th in the East, they're 6.5 games back of Golden State for the 8th and final spot in the West.

Joel Pryzbilla had a career-high 25 points in Saturday's win and leading scorer Brandon Roy scored 23 for the Blazers.

After their stop in Portland, the Wiz head to Seattle, Sacramento and L.A. for a date with Kobe and the Lakers before finishing things up in Utah. It's a critical trip for Washington as they look to hold onto and potentially increase their 1.5 game lead on Toronto and Philly. The first three games are all very winnable and with the way these guys have been playing over the last week and a half, a victory in L.A. or Utah wouldn't be a shock either.

All photos AP/Getty by way of Yahoo!

-- The Tar Heel

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