Throughout the preseason, the Washington Wizards said they would need key contributions from their young players - notably fourth-year forward Andray Blatche and second-year guard Nick Young - to weather the early going without leading scorer Gilbert Arenas, who is still recovering from knee surgery.
Both players scored in double digits Wednesday night in Washington's season opener against the New Jersey Nets at Verizon Center. But their performances weren't enough to offset poor shooting by All-Star forwards Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison and a fourth-quarter cold spell as the Wizards opened the regular season with a 95-85 loss.
After Blatche, who finished with 13 points, six rebounds and a block, hit a jumper with 6:02 left in the fourth quarter to cut his team's deficit to 80-78, Washington missed its next eight field goals before Blatche got a putback to fall with 11.8 seconds left. Washington also committed four turnovers down the stretch.
Vince Carter led the rebuilding Nets, who closed out the game on a 15-7 run, with 21 points - including six in the final five minutes - and second-year forward Yi Jianlian, acquired over the summer from Milwaukee, notched 17.
Jamison managed 14 points on 6-for-18 shooting, and Butler tallied 13 on 3-for-11 shooting. DeShawn Stevenson finished with 14 points, including four 3-pointers, and Young added 10 points. The Wizards shot 37 percent from the floor, while the Nets made 47.4 percent of their shots.
"They're a good defensive team with their length, and [7-foot-tall] Yi on Caron, I think that bothered Caron some," Wizards coach Eddie Jordan said. "I thought Antawn had some good looks from the 3. Antawn didn't get to the line. And when your forwards go 9-for-29 and 1-for-9 from 3-point range, you're going to struggle. ... You've got to get more from your main guys. Your main guys have to put a stamp on the game like Vince Carter and Yi did for them. Our guys didn't."
After taking a 13-9 lead with five minutes left in the first quarter, the Wizards entered the second quarter in a 23-23 tie. Washington managed a 46-44 advantage at halftime but came out with a listless performance in the third quarter. The Wizards, who shot 36.8 percent from the floor while getting outscored 25-21 in the quarter, trailed 69-67 heading into the fourth.
The Wizards saw center Etan Thomas come full circle, recording a 10-point, eight-rebound effort in his first start in 17 months. Thomas missed all of last season after surgery to repair a leaky aortic valve in October 2007. He had hoped to return to action late last season, but his sternum failed to heal by late March.
He was cleared for full contact in June and had a strong training camp, but the Wizards expected to bring him along gradually. Then on Oct. 2, Brendan Haywood a tore a ligament in his right wrist, requiring surgery that will keep him out up to six months.
So the job was Thomas' to lose, and after he averaged 6.3 points and 3.4 rebounds during the preseason, Wizards coach Eddie Jordan tabbed him as the starter.
"I was definitely excited," Thomas said. "I felt good out there, personally. I just wish we would've come out with the win."
The Wizards have 13 active players but under NBA rules can dress only 12 players for regular-season games. Second-year forward Oleksiy Pecherov did not dress, and rookie center JaVale McGee suited up for the first game of his career.
Jordan said the decision to deactivate Pecherov in favor of McGee wasn't a slight against the Ukrainian but rather a reward to McGee for the progress he made in the preseason.
"I just think a couple of factors: No. 1, JaVale has had a terrific preseason. He's learned at a great pace. He is our first-round pick this year," Jordan said. "And I don't want our first-round pick, in his first game at home and he's had a good preseason, to be inactive."
McGee debuted with 4:14 left in the third quarter. He recorded two rebounds and a blocked shot in just less than nine minutes.