Losers of back-to-back games - by a combined six points - the Washington Wizards returned to practice Tuesday hoping to rekindle the progress they had made in the previous two weeks, when they won four of five.
Among the areas the Wizards worked on was playing a more up-tempo style. Part of that begins with using their improved defense and rebounding to spark the offense.
A year after allowing foes to shoot 48.2 percent, Washington is limiting teams to a 44.3 percent shooting clip, and they are narrowly outrebounding opponents 43.6-43.0. Coach Flip Saunders said his team should be pulling down defensive rebounds and getting out on the fast break more often.
"Right now, we're trying to get a better thrust with the ball, and [we should be] trying to get more open-floor opportunities," he said. "We're not taking advantage of that."
Center Brendan Haywood is averaging a career-high 10.8 rebounds to lead Washington's rebounding effort, which ranks third in the NBA. But the team's fast-break scoring opportunities have not gone up, and a good deal of that rests on the shoulders of Gilbert Arenas.
Arenas is averaging a career-high 6.5 assists, but his scoring (20.4 points) is down significantly from his three-time All-Star days. With the guard not experiencing any limitations in the left knee that kept him sidelined for all but 15 games the previous two seasons, Saunders has stressed to Arenas the need to attack - whether it be scoring or handing out assists.
"We want him to be aggressive with the ball, whether it's scoring or distributing, but we cannot walk the ball up the court," Saunders said. "That's something we've really been trying to work on from the beginning of training camp: If there is a miss, we shouldn't be in any sort of set play. We haven't done as good a job as we need to."
Saunders has preached aggression in other aspects of the game as well, including attacking the basket rather than settling for shots along the perimeter. The Wizards rank 21st in the league (32.4 percent) on 3-pointers.
"We looked at the film and saw the mistakes that we made and know that in order for that to be different and for us to turn things around, we've got to do some things differently on both ends on the floor," captain Antawn Jamison said. "We've got to make the ball move, be more aggressive going to the basket - too many jumpers. And defensively we've got to do a better job with dribble penetration."
Guard Mike James, who has missed the past 13 games with a broken left ring finger, returned to practice. Despite showing some rust, he looked decent, Saunders said.
Before getting hurt, James had gotten into only one game (Nov. 6 at Indiana, scoring six points in 22 minutes).
"Overall I knew I wouldn't be too far behind," he said. "I'm just ready to play ball, focusing on nothing but the game."