Flip Saunders spent all week taking his Washington Wizards back to basics, reteaching them how to properly execute screens, generate more fast-break points and play with greater consistency and aggression on both ends of the court.
The Wizards produced the same old result Thursday night at Verizon Center, falling 104-102 to the Boston Celtics. With their third straight defeat, the Wizards fell to 7-13. The Celtics won their ninth straight and improved to an NBA-best 18-4.
After falling into a hole with a poor second quarter, the Wizards, who played in front of their fifth sellout crowd of the season, pulled off an impressive comeback in the third and then rallied again in the fourth. But Boston weathered the charges - aided by two missed free throws and a missed 3-pointer by Gilbert Arenas in the final 25 seconds - to escape.
After trailing by as many as 14 in the third quarter, the Wizards - ignited by Andray Blatche, who scored nine of his 17 points in the final period - came back to tie the score at 94-94 with 2:23 to play.
They remained in stride with the Celtics for the next 1 1/2 minutes, tying the score at 96-96 and 98-98. But when the Wizards had the chance to tie the score at 100-100, Arenas missed two foul shots with 26.7 seconds left.
Paul Pierce made a foul shot to extend Boston's lead to 101-98 before Arenas came back with a pull-up jumper. But that was as close as the Wizards came. Ray Allen - who with 18 points surpassed the 20,000-point mark for his career - made a pair of free throws to give his team a 103-100 lead.
Arenas missed a 3-pointer, and Randy Foye air-balled an ensuing 3-point attempt. Kendrick Perkins made one of two shots from the line to close out the game.
"We competed for the most part except that second quarter, but if we compete the way we did in the second half, we'll win our share of games and get things going in the right direction," Saunders said. "We had the situation where we were down two, had our best player at the free throw line, and you expect him to make those - and he didn't. He also got a pretty good look at a 3-pointer to tie it later - but didn't. We're doing things to put ourselves in good position, but unfortunately we haven't come up on the better end of the draw."
With 21 points, Rajon Rondo led five Boston scorers in double digits. Arenas had 25 points and eight assists to lead the Wizards, who also had five players in double digits.
The Wizards showed once again they have yet to figure out how to play consistently for 48 minutes. Because of it, they fell into a first-half hole that they never managed to dig out of.
Washington avoided its customary sleepwalk start, using a 9-0 run to take a 26-19 lead with 3:43 left in the first quarter. The Celtics responded with run of their own, pulling within 28-27 heading into the second.
But the Wizards' slump came in that period. Boston torched Washington on 12-for-16 shooting to score 37 points and outrebounded the Wizards 11-0 to take a 64-50 lead into halftime.
The Wizards finally woke up in the second half. Paced by nine points and four rebounds from center Brendan Haywood, Washington opened the third quarter on a 20-6 run to tie the score at 70-70 on a 20-foot jumper from Arenas with 5:19 left in the quarter.
Then, after forcing an Allen turnover, Washington came storming back up the court. Arenas drove the lane, then dumped the ball off to a trailing Antawn Jamison, who laid the ball in for a 72-70 lead - the Wizards' first in 17 minutes - to cap an 11-0 run.
In an all-too-familiar theme, the Wizards' comeback quest fell short. In the remaining 4:44 of the quarter, Washington went 1-for-8 from the field and committed four turnovers. The Celtics capitalized with a 13-2 run to reclaim the lead and go up 83-74 heading into the fourth.
"As we've explained many times, you have one shot or one bad possession, and that can change the flow of the game," Saunders said. "We probably played one of our best first quarters all year here at home. Had things going, then had some bad, quick shots in the second quarter, and they got confidence. To our guys' credit, when you don't get rebounds in the second quarter and you're 19 possessions down to end the second quarter... but we fought back. But you still can't shoot 63 percent from the foul line against good teams, and we can't give up layups."