Finally, after 25 years, the Washington franchise is in first place in their division. To get there, the Wizards had to win a real dogfight last night against the Magic. It was an exciting game to watch, no doubt about it. Sitting at the Verizon Center allows you to take in a lot more than you can on television, and this game was one of the more interesting ones of the season.
There are a few things people should take away from this game. In no particular order:
- Way back in training camp, people like Ivan Carter were mentioning that the mindset with this team is completely different than in years past, and after watching this game, it shows on the court. Even though Orlando controlled the first half, the Wizards never tried to deviate from the gameplan. In the fourth quarter, you got the same sense too. Orlando scrapped and came back, but the Wizards never seemed to melt under pressure, no matter what happened. It says something that Caron Butler can stew on the bench for most of the fourth quarter and then come in and hit the big shot. However, it says even more that the Wizards played really tight defense on the Magic after Butler missed those two free throws.
It's almost blasphemous to compare Butler's two misses to Gilbert Arenas' missed free throws in the Cleveland series, but it's interesting to see the difference. After Arenas' misses, Cleveland took the ball down the court, and after the Wizards doubled LeBron James, both Butler and Antawn Jamison were late on their rotations, allowing Damon Jones to get an open three in the corner. Tonight, the Wizards forced Orlando to throw the ball in the corner, and when Keyon Dooling got the ball back, Arenas and DeShawn Stevenson forced him to shoot a tough running shot. Granted, Orlando doesn't have a LeBron, bu this is certainly a game the Wizards would have lost last year.
- Speaking of Butler, my brother and I were wondering why he didn't play for most of the fourth quarter. Apparently, Eddie Jordan wasn't happy with his defensive performance, and left him on the bench to make a point. Butler turned the ball over 6 times, and allowed Hedo Turkoglu to score 20 points in the first half. Butler's defensive struggles in the first quarter hit at the crux of his problems, namely that he loses sight of his man too easily. A couple times, it wasn't his fault, because Butler was compensating for Antawn Jamison losing his man. Other times, however, Butler had no reason to leave Turkoglu alone, and he did so anyway. As a man defender, Butler is solid, but he needs to learn how to play solid weakside defense.
- The Wizards won this game with a stretch in the third quarter where they turned a 4 point deficit into a 9 point lead. In the first half, the Wizards weren't doubling Dwight Howard at the right times, and they allowed too much dribble penetration off screen and rolls. Most importantly, the Wizards weren't aggressively pressuring a Magic offense that turns the ball over more than any other team in the league. In the third quarter, the Wizards doubled Howard at the right times and forced Orlando to turn the ball over, leading to easy hoops at the other end. Considering the athletes the Wizards have, this is the type of defense we should be seeing all the time. Unfortunately, the Magic figured it out at the end of the third, and they took better care of the ball while finding Howard deeper in the paint. If Howard and Dooling are hitting their shots down the stretch, the Wizards lose this one.
- On the other end, the Magic had no answer for Arenas until the end of the game. In the first half, Arenas just kept shooting over the smaller Jameer Nelson. Later, Orlando tried to send multiple guys at him, but Arenas somehow found a way to score. With 6 minutes to go in the fourth, Arenas spun around Trevor Ariza and Carlos Arroyo and hit a driving layup over Keith Bogans for his 34th and 35th points of the game. But Orlando only let him score 1 point after that, and they forced the rest of the Wizards to beat them. Orlando figured out how to stop the Wizards offense, but it came too late.
- Andray Blatche had another solid performance in limited time, including one ridiculous coast-to-coast layup at the end of the second quarter. It's becoming clear that Blatche belongs inside instead of on the perimeter. He holds the ball too much on the wing, and he can't defend opposing threes. Inside, however, Blatche won't have to handle the ball, and he can use his athleticism on the glass. If he can replace Michael Ruffin in the rotation, the team will be significantly better.
- After watching him play, I realize that Jameer Nelson isn't the Magic's problem. However, even though he had 20 points, I still think Keyon Dooling kills them. He hit a lot of tough shots, and when he got the ball, he looked to shoot first. Wtih a guy like Dwight Howard, the Magic either need a sublime talent on the wing or a pass-first guy. Dooling is neither; he's really just a shoot-first gunner. If the Magic replace him and Carlos Arroyo with a better, taller wing, they'll be so much better.
- I wish I could tell you some crazy story of a fan in my section, but the cast of characters really wasn't that great. Sorry.
In the end, it was a great win for a team that has proven they can win the ugly ones. First place has never tasted so sweet.
Postgame thoughts? What did you take away from this win?