There are two schools of thought when it comes to close games. One says that there is little luck in winning close games, because the team that is mentally stronger will execute and "come through in the clutch" more often than not. The other says that consistently winning close games is more luck than skill, as there are infinite plays and infinite variable that can potentially be altered to change the outcome.
Personally, I'm very firmly in line with the second school of thought, but this Wizards team is making me rethink my beliefs. Tonight, the Wizards moved to 7-1 in their last 8 games decided by 5 points or less, defeating the Pistons in Detroit 99-96.
I've ragged on Antawn Jamison a bit on this site, but he came through with a huge performance tonight, scoring 35 points and hitting the dagger three to put the Wiz up 1 with under a minute to go. Jamison's perimeter game was a tough matchup for Detroit all night, as Rasheed Wallace was unable to get out on Jamison on the wing. Whenever Wallace did get out, Jamison's quickness allowed him to drive right by Wallace. It was simply bad planning by the Pistons, who should have known that Wallace couldn't handle Jamison on the perimeter.
To add to the bad planning by Detroit, this is one of those games where the Chris Webber signing hurts them. Ordinairly, Jamison's inability to defend in the post would have been a liability, and Sheed would have eaten him alive. However, Webber's presence in the lineup allowed the Wizards to hide Jamison, thereby negating Detroit's plans. It's no wonder that Antonio McDyess, a stronger, more post-oriented big man, destroyed the Wizards inside in his 24 minutes. Jamison had nowhere to hide anymore. Yet Flip Saunders played Webber for 32 minutes and McDyess for only 24. That's bad coaching, and it cost Detroit the game.
Still, going back to winning tight games, the Wizards have developed a mental edge they lacked last year. Last season, the Wizards pythagorean record (aka expected wins based on point differential) was 46-36, four games better than their actual record. This indicates a deficiency in winning close games. This year, however, their expected winning percentage is lower than their actual winning percentage, indicating an increase in winning close games.
When you translate this on the court, it's clear there's a difference. You can see that with someone like Caron Butler, who, after having an awful game (easily his worst of the season) to make a couple big rebounds and free throws at the end. You can see it with Jamison, who managed to step back at just the right time to shake free of Sheed and drain that go-ahead three. You can see it on the last posession, where the Wizards completely locked down the Pistons on the three-point line, forcing Sheed's wild, off-balanced attempt. Last year, the Wizards were playing at a level that merited this type of record, but they never got there. This year, they're there, and it's because of late-game execution.
One other reason the Wizards won this game was because Eddie Jordan chose to play his six best players, rather than play guys like Jarvis Hayes and Etan Thomas extended minutes. Hayes and Thomas played fewer than 10 minutes tonight, and everyone else logged heavy minutes. Brendan Haywood played 39 minutes in this one, and his length frustrated the Pistons up front. Antonio Daniels played 26 minutes and had another solid game, scoring 9 points on 4 of 5 shooting. Gilbert Arenas played all 48 minutes, and despite only shooting 10 of 27, still managed to play decently. It's not a strategy that's going to be effective in the long run, but for tonight, it was the right way to go.
In contrast to Flip Saunders, who played Webber too many minutes and failed to put McDyess and Nazr Mohammad in for enough minutes, Eddie Jordan may have been smarter with his rotation. When's the next time you're going to hear something like that?
In the end, in a game that could have gone either way, the Wizards found a way to win against one of the East's best teams on their imposing home court. That's a big deal, no matter how you slice it.