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Wizards lose to Heat: Final wrap, including some questioning of Flip Saunders' in-game strategy

It's true that a large reason (okay, fine, very large reason) last night's game against the Miami Heat was so frustrating was the outcome.  To lose in the final seconds because of two missed free throws and two poorly-executed late-game plays against a team that you should probably beat really hurts. 

But the truth is, I don't think I would have felt so good about this game even if we had pulled it out.  The way we started the game was so frustrating and should never happen at a home game.  Even if we had managed to come back, we did it by once again abandoning a lot of our principles.  Gilbert Arenas almost won the game by himself, but with the exception of the brief moments Mike Miller displayed his toughness after the shoulder injury, this was a team reverting back into a one-on-one approach.  Too many players either didn't show up or didn't get a chance to show up (or both). 

There are a lot of reasons for those problems, and it's tough to nail down exactly who deserves the lion share of the blame.  We'll try to do so below the jump.  But several people involved with the team took a questionable approach to tonight's game.  That list, sadly, includes head coach Flip Saunders, as we'll discuss below.


Four Factors: (Bold=very good | Italics=very bad)

Team Pace Off Eff eFG% FT/FG OREB% TOr
Miami 89 104.5 54.2% 20.8 22.2 19.1
Washington 100 40.9% 26.8 30.2 13.5


Snap reaction: This looks like a Four Factors chart we'd see a lot when Eddie Jordan was coaching.  Terrible shooting defense, poor shooting offense, a lot of turnovers forced and not a lot of fouls committed on defense.  It's the first time out shot defense has not been good, which I guess is a good sign.  Overall, looking at this, it's a pretty big surprise that the Wizards were even as close as they were.

Lineup Details (via Popcorn Machine)

  • Highest individual plus/minus: JaVale McGee (+11 in 8:18)
  • Lowest individual plus/minus: Brendan Haywood (-18 in 36:00)
  • Best five-man unit: Randy Foye/Mike Miller/Caron Butler/Andray Blatche/JaVale McGee (+8 in the second quarter)
  • Worst five-man unit: Gilbert Arenas/Randy Foye/Caron Butler/Fabricio Oberto/Brendan Haywood (-12 in the first quarter)

Snap reaction: I was surprised to see Haywood's plus/minus so low, but he basically only played when Dwyane Wade played, so that explains a lot.  That also explains a lot of why McGee's plus/minus was so good. 

Let's start with Flip Saunders.  After four games of nearly flawless in-game management, I thought Saunders made some decisions that can be questioned.  Among them:

  • Starting out with Mike Miller guarding Dwyane Wade and Caron Butler guarding Quentin Richardson: I'm still scratching my head about this decision.  I guess Saunders wanted Butler to focus on finding his offense, because he had been struggling, but that obviously didn't work out.  Wade is an incredible player, no doubt, but Butler's ability to move laterally would have given him more trouble than Miller, who just can't slide his feet fast enough.  Instead, Miller laid way off Wade, Wade got into a rhythm, Miller got into foul trouble and Wade couldn't be turned off.  Meanwhile, Butler, who has always been prone to lapses off the ball, allowed Quentin Richardson too many open looks from three, and Richardson burned the Wizards every time.
  • Going to a zone in the second quarter: I get the logic here - nobody can stop Wade, so throw a different look at him and maybe it'll mess up his rhythm.  But with a team this behind in basic defensive principles, I don't think it's a good idea to have them try to pick up an exceedingly complicated scheme to go along with their basic scheme.  I'd like to see them master the basic scheme first. 
  • Not going back to JaVale McGee after his boneheaded play in the second quarter: At the time, I also wanted McGee out for the game after he tried to go from the free throw line to the rim.  But looking back, McGee did help the club when he was in the game, and Miami had trouble dealing with him.  It might have been better to reward him for his energy and give him another chance.
  • Not giving Dominic McGuire a shot: I'm still wondering why McGuire isn't getting his chances.  I'd think he could at least guard Wade for stretches, and with DeShawn Stevenson shooting so poorly, I'm less inclined to worry about McGuire's perimeter shooting problems. 
  • Allowing Gilbert Arenas full freedom: A lot of this is on Gilbert, as we'll discuss below.  But if you were watching ESPN, you heard that Saunders basically encouraged him to attack and call his own number.  That might be wise in the fourth quarter, but in the third quarter, the emphasis should have been on getting some of the other players in the game.  Yes, it's true Miami couldn't guard him, but the other guys have to stay involved.
  • Keeping Mike Miller in the game after he was initially hurt: Not sure how I can excuse this one.  I mean, I'm sure Flip wanted him out of the game, but Miller insisted he come back, so this isn't all on the coaches.  But once it was clear his shoulder was bothering him, I'm really surprised it took so long to get him back out of the game.  It's game five, not game 65.

So, all those were decisions I didn't agree with.  But let's be honest, tonight's loss is also on the players.  The way they came out in that first quarter was pretty unacceptable.  It is true that one of Flip's jobs is to get his team ready to play, but that's also the players' jobs.  Caron Butler, in particular, came out so poorly last night.  He wasn't shooting when he was open, which is a killer in a continuity offense.  If he's not playing well, this team is in real trouble, as we saw last night.

It was around this point that Gilbert Arenas decided to take over.  He hoisted 27 shots and had 15 free throws, but also only had three assists.  The only time the offense really ran well, in fact, was when Arenas was not in the game (though, to be fair, neither was Wade).  Obviously, in the long run, that's not a sustainable way to win.  If I had to break the game down into stages, here's how I'd do it.

  • Quarter 1, first part: Everyone comes out flat, Gilbert defers most of the time.

  • Quarter 1, second part: Gilbert decides he's the only one who's in the game and tries to score every time down.  His teammates remain flat.

  • Quarter 2, first part: Gilbert goes out, everyone else in the game realizes they need to step up and come to play, and they rise to the challenge.

  • Quarter 2, second part: Gilbert comes back in, still doesn't fully trust his teammates, but does pass a bit more.  However, Wade hits some big shots and the Wizards fall back by 9.

  • Quarter 3: Gilbert gives up the ball a bit more, but still shoots a lot.  The offense runs very well, led by Brendan Haywood early and Mike Miller late.

  • Quarter 4: Gilbert gets into a duel with Dwyane Wade, everyone else gets freezed out, Gilbert and the team lose.

It's hard for me to fully blame Arenas in Quarter 1.  It was clear nobody was in the game, and Gilbert has every reason to think that he needs to carry more of the load himself until his teammates ido get into the game.  But once the Wizards cut the lead down, Arenas should have committed himself more to stepping back a bit and playing more under control.  Obviously, in the fourth quarter, he should get the ball, but there were too many times when he predetermined what he was going to do instead of trying to create for others.

When you do too much freezing out of your teammates, it has an effect.  Butler never got back into the game after the beginning.  Yes, a lot of that is on him, but he also didn't exactly get a ton of good chances in the second half.  Randy Foye also didn't do much tonight, in large part because most of his shots came off the dribble when he was paired with Arenas.  The Heat played him pretty well, but he still gets hurt when Arenas predetermines what he's going to do.  It speaks to Arenas' incredible physical skill (he's officially back there) that he can score so many points when he predetermines like this, but it's still not good for the entire team.  I don't think it's a coincidence that the Wizards' best lineup tonight didn't include Gilbert.

It's early, and his mental game still isn't there, but it should be noted that Arenas did not play particularly well despite his high point total.

More notes:

  • The unquestioned MVP of tonight's game was Brendan Haywood.  He dominated Jermaine O'Neal, scoring 16 points and notching 11 rebounds while holding O'Neal to just four points.  He also was absolutely flawless helping out on defense tonight, particularly in the fourth quarter.  On offense, after a bit too much forcing early on, Haywood didn't do anything out of his comfort zone, and that made him a far more effective player.  The Wizards don't come anywhere close to winning tonight without Haywood's contributions.

  • Lots of people are annoyed that DeShawn Stevenson was on the court at the end of the game.  I don't really have a problem with it, because Stevenson was doing a good job on Wade in the fourth quarter.  Wade did most of his scoring damage against other guys, not DeShawn.  Now, DeShawn's play at the end to go one-on-three wasn't a smart one, for sure, but with Miller injured and Foye very incapable of guarding Wade, I'm not sure what else Flip could have done.  Normally, I'd think Miller closes that game with Butler guarding Wade, but Miller was hurt, so Flip was stuck.

  • Gilbert is right about Caron Butler when he criticized him for taking too long to make decisions on the court.  Caron can't be pump-faking and surveying the defense in this system.  However, I would also like to see some different plays be run for Caron in order to empower him more.  Maybe more post-ups like Tayshaun Prince used to run?  I'm not sure.

  • I have to admit, I was impressed with how well-coached Miami is.  They have little talent, but they execute extremely well.  Credit Erik Spolestra for that.  Then again, I am a bit confused as to why Michael Beasley didn't play very much.

  • Getting Antawn Jamison back will be such a big help.  Right now, Fabricio Oberto is being completely ignored on offense.  You can't do that with Jamison in the game. 

All in all, considering where our team is at now, it's not terrible to be 2-3.  I just wish I didn't have to feel so queasy about this game, win or lose.  We should have taken this one.