"There it is. We've got our contender."
-Robert Pollin to his father, October 28, 2009.
It's only fitting that the best game of the 2009/10 Wizards season, according to you guys, was the first game of the season. For the first game was the only game in which this team looked like the team management thought it would be over the summer. The other 81 games? Yikes.
But this is about Game 1, not Games 2-82. Long story short, the Wizards won this game primarily because of two players who are still on the roster right now. Gilbert Arenas looked more back than he did at any other point in the first month and a half, dropping 29 points on nine shots while controlling the ball like Flip Saunders hoped. Meanwhile, Andray Blatche came off the bench to score 20, showing the kind of improvement he eventually displayed later in the year. The newcomers - Randy Foye, Mike Miller and Fabricio Oberto - blended in perfectly, as the Wizards were able to overcome a poor shooting night by Caron Butler (which would become more common) and the absence of Antawn Jamison to win.
The real story of the game was how the Wizards seemed to fit Flip Saunders' vision perfectly. They executed plays in their halfcourt offense rather than reacting to tendencies. They made quick decisions and forced the defense to react rather than waiting for the defense to dictate the terms of engagement. From the postgame recap:
One game in, and I'm starting to see where Gilbert Arenas was coming from when he dubbed Jordan's style as being suitable only for very experienced teams. Jordan's entire offense was reactive rather than proactive. He jammed a zillion different reads and counters into his players' heads, hoping to prepare them for every situation. Jordan also threw out several different defensive "plays" of sorts, also in an attempt to confuse the defense. This meant that Jordan and the Wizards were impossible to plan for, but also were not well-prepared, if that makes any sense. Many of the Wizards tried to pick it all up, but ultimately played too antsy to make a consistent impact.
Flip Saunders' gameplan, on the other hand, is far simpler, and I think it showed tonight. The Wizards came down every possession and ran their offense. If it resulted in an open shot, great. They ran the play and got the shot off it. If that didn't work, the players all knew that the ball was to go one of three places -- Gilbert Arenas, Caron Butler, or whoever possessed the hot hand. Simple, simple simple.
It wasn't like Arenas was the only one doing anything either. Randy Foye had 19 points, most of those coming while playing in tandem with Arenas in the backcourt. Fabricio Oberto did all the little things, while Brendan Haywood and Mike Miller filled their roles perfectly. Haywood played 39 minutes, showing Flip already believed in him more than Eddie Jordan ever did, and Miller played unselfishly in a spot where it actually made sense to be unselfish. Saunders' grand vision of Arenas dictating everything and the team succeeding off him worked, for one night at least.
Defensively, the Wizards clamped down on the Mavericks, holding them to 39.5 percent shooting. The Mavericks were playing without Josh Howard, but as it turned out, that was probably a blessing in disguise. Dirk Nowitzki starred with 34 points, but nobody else stepped up for the Mavs. (Fast forward 85 games or so, and the same thing is happening to Dallas in the playoffs). The Wizards' defensive philosophy was simple, when under Eddie Jordan it was too complicated for its own good.
And on defense, the rules were consistent -- contest shots, let Dirk Nowitzki get his, shut down everyone else, deny dribble penetration and seal off the weakside rebounding. No zone defense, no zone traps, no matchup zone, even. Just one philosophy that the players needed to execute.
In other words, for one game, the Wizards were everything they were not the rest of the season. (Except Caron Butler - he was that bad all year). Arenas took nearly two months to get the rhythm he had in the Dallas game back. Blatche suffered through inconsistent play until the trades. Foye never found a place on the team. Oberto couldn't stay in good enough shape. Miller got hurt, then couldn't fill a new role well after the trades. The defense never was that solid, and the offense never was that efficient. Looking back, it was a fleeting reminder of the razor-thin margin between success and failure in this league. The Wizards were capable of being very good. That game showed it. But they couldn't do it consistently, and consequently couldn't deal with the realization that it takes a more focused effort to win in this league. You won't always be playing at your best.
Regardless, October 27 was clearly the game of the year for the Wizards this season. Let's remember it more in the comments section.