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Starting slow drains Washington’s magic

- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 6, 2009

Flip Saunders left Verizon Center perplexed and heated after his Washington Wizards' 109-107 overtime loss to the Toronto Raptors on Friday night.

The coach could have taken issue with his team blowing a six-point, fourth-quarter lead or with his franchise point guard missing a game-tying layup with two seconds left in overtime.

But all that was irrelevant in the coach's eyes. For the ninth time in as many home games, the Wizards got off to a slow start and had to play catch-up.

Before leaving the arena, Saunders did some research and found that the Wizards have trailed opponents by an average of 8.4 points at some point during the first quarter of each of their home games. Four times they bounced back and won, although one of those times was against the woeful New Jersey Nets.

The numbers are much worse in the Wizards' five home losses. In those games, Washington has trailed by an average of 12.6 points at some point during the first half. The most frustrating aspect is that those five losses have come by an average of 7.6 points.

If the Wizards could simply execute from the start, they could easily be 12-6 instead of 7-11.

"We've lost a lot of games, but I'm more disappointed than any other game we've had," Saunders said of Friday's loss, in which the Wizards battled back from a 15-point deficit.

The coach was left to wonder what trick he needed to pull out of his bag to get his team to play better at home. He already had tried the traditional method of holding a morning shootaround. Then he tried pushing the shootaround back to 4:45 p.m. to give his players more rest.

But his players weren't refreshed, and Saunders observed the same lack of urgency.

"I don't know what it is, but somehow we've got to get off to better starts," the coach said. "What happens, in a game like that, you fall behind so much that you don't ever get into a rhythm. I always say what you establish early in the game, you can always go back to late because they have to adjust to stop what you do early. But we never established anything early. We were playing catch-up the whole night."

And while playing catch-up, the Wizards became guilty of what Saunders calls "home run basketball." The Wizards have employed high-risk/low-reward strategies, such as attempting 29 3-point shots despite being a 32 percent team from beyond the arc and making ill-advised length-of-the-court passes while hoping for quick breakaway dunk.

The Wizards almost got away with those transgressions Friday. But had they been facing a legitimate playoff team, the coach pointed out, they never would have been able to fall behind by 15 and still have a chance to win.

The players didn't seem as concerned as their coach. Gilbert Arenas, who missed the tying shot in overtime, said a change in methods isn't required - he and his teammates simply have to do better.

"We just got to come out with energy," he said. "It has nothing to do with shooting around, not shooting around. It's something with our first unit. We've got to come to play. I don't know if we're warming up good enough. I don't know what it is, but we're not starting off the game the way we should be."

When asked about the slow starts, Caron Butler said he expects the problem to work itself out as the Wizards become more comfortable under Saunders.

"It happens like that sometimes. Last six games we've been playing great basketball. We're happy with our progress, but it can be better, and it will," Butler said. "Sometimes it happens like that. You start off flat. Unfortunately that was the case [Friday], and hopefully it won't be the case in Detroit [on Sunday], and I'm almost certain it won't."