The Washington Times - November 3, 2009, 11:26PM

     CLEVELAND — Wasn’t it interesting how the Wizards were able to weather the absence of Arenas in the 2007-08 season and still make the playoffs thanks to Antawn Jamison, Caron Butler and a career year from Brendan Todd Haywood?

     And how last year with basically the same squad (minus Roger Mason Jr.) and again without Arenas, but also minus Haywood, the Wizards were a 19 win team?

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     And how early in the preseason, the Wizards were doing a fine job against Dallas, and protecting the paint, and Haywood goes down and Washington fell apart?

     Tonight we saw the same thing. The Wizards, even without Antawn Jamison, were rolling along. Straight killing the Cavaliers, up by 18 in teh second quarter. The lead dipped to 13, but things were still cool … until Haywood got slapped with his third foul. He left teh game with 7:49 left in the second quarter and his team up 39-26. After Haywood left, the Wizards were never the same.

     He came back in the second half, but before he fouled out you could tell just looking at him, he was thinking ‘don’t fou, don’t foul, don’t foul!’ His fellow big men were plagued with the same problem. The Wizards are never thought of a reliant-upon-big-men team, but take Haywood — and apparently his fellow big men as well — away and the Wizards change almost completely.

     “We played really well and then there’s no question when our bigs got in foul trouble the momentum changed from the standpoint that we couldn’t be aggressive around the basket. We couldn’t do some of the things we were doing offensively. We just weren’t as aggressive and it was tough to get the mojo back,” Flip Saunders said. “What happened was we had bigs that were setting good screens and doing things. When the bigs got in foul trouble it was tough to get some of those and we didn’t have as much inside presence at that point. So they could lock down more on the perimeter.”

     That woudl explain why Caron Butler and Gilbert Arenas (after scoring 13 and 10 points, respectively) in the first quarter managed just four points apiece in the second quarter. No strong picks coming from their big men and they were forced to create for themselves even more.

     And the foul trouble killed the big men’s offensive production as well. Andray Blatche was on his way to another strong night, going 3-for-3 from the field with seven points in seven minutes, but after he picked up his third foul, he didn’t score again.

     McGee’s playing time took a hint, so we didn’t see more of his great chemistry with Randy Foye. And without the combined 37 points a game the Wizards had been getting out of the trio of Haywood, Blatche and McGee, and no Antawn Jamison on top of that, the Wizards lacked the offensive punch needed to prevent the the Cavaliers from loading up on Arenas and Butler.

     The foul problems screwed up the Wizards’ rotation, and also had guys playing out of position.

     Said Caron Butler: “It was tough because we lost our defensive presence. When those guys got in foul trouble it kind of had us out there with guys playing out of position. At one point, I was playing the four. It is what it is.”

     The Wizards obviously could have helped themselves with better perimeter defense. After doing a solid job in the first half (holding the Cavs to 2-for-12 3-point shooting in the first half), the Wizards got torched (Cleveland went 9-for-13 from the arc) in the second half.

     Flip Saunders blamed much of the defensive lapses on a ripple effect of the offensive struggles.

     “If you’re not scoring, it affects you defensively, kind of sucks the energy out of you some times,” the coach said. “There were times when we played very well defensively, then there were times we had some struggles. We rebounded well, which was a big key going in. But just to show you as far as our offensive execution, we had only 12 assists, and that’s not us. We need to have near 20 for sure.”

     And Andray Blatche said the Wizards stopped trusting each other when they fell under distress, even discounting foul troubles as the key stumbling block.

     “That’s not one of our bigger problems,” 7-Day-Dray said. “We have to play more as a team, fight through things as a team. We’ve got to stick together, no matter waht. Everybody has to trust everybody. Fouls are going to come, but you have to fight through that. After a while, everybody tried to make their own plays when we got down. We stopped sticking to the things we were doing. That kind of messed our rhythm up.”

     Well, Flip said before the game that this game would show good or bad where the Wizards were. And tonight showed they’re not terribly far off, but still have some work to do, which the coach is fine with.

     “I keep telling them it’s a process to get where we want to go,” Flip said. “We’re not going to get there in four weeks, or eight weeks, not even the first two months. But you’re hoping as the season progresses, by the time you’re well into the season that you’re playing at the level you need to play.”

 

                                                                      — Mike Jones

                                                           Twitter: @MikeJonesTWT