Wizards-Thunder pregame

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     The Washington Wizards are set to take on a young, much-improved Oklahoma City Thunder team led by Kevin Durant, whom Flip Saunders ranks among the NBA’s top 10 players. As they saw last time they faced the Thunder — on Nov. 20 in Oklahoma — this is a squad that boasts a potent offense, but also a strong defensive focus.

     The Thunder torched the Wizards 127-108 last time around, so obviously, an improved defensive focus will be key for the Wizards. Washington is coming off yet another close loss on Monday in Memphis and Saudners said the reason for what is now nine defeats decided by five points or fewer is an inability to get stops down the stretch.

   “The common factors that we haven’t been able to do, is we haven’t been able to make stops down the stretch,” Saunders said. “We’ve improved defensively some times at the beginning of games but when it comes down to it you’ve got to be able to in crunch time play meat and potato defense and make a stop. Thats what we haven’t been able to do. We either allow a penetration, or allow an offensive rebound or allowing a quick duck-in, and those are the things we can’t do. Our last three games at times, our best defense has been our zone defense, so if we have to, we’ll see if that’s something we have to do keep another team off-balance and not let them settle into a comfort zone.”

     As you might have noticed last night, every time the Wizards came down the court and settled into that zone defense, Saunders frantically stepped onto the court and screamed and motioned for his players to raise their hands.

     “If you don’t keep your hands up, your zone looks like swiss cheese – it has holes in it,” Saunders said. “But when you’re hands are up, you cut down a lot of passing lanes, and they just don’t totally understand it some times and maybe they haven’t played it enough and don’t totally understand those things.”

     It may seem rather baffling that professional basketball players have to be reminded to raise their hands to cut off passing lanes — something often taught in the youth basketball and high school levels. But, Saunders said it doesn’t strike him as odd or surprising that the Wizards need to be reminded of that.

     “I think when as a coach you assume your players know those things, that’s when you’re in trouble,” Saunders said. “All players have lapses over the course of the game. There’s a lot of emotion in a game, a lot of things to distract them, and some times keeping your hands up is the least of their problems. They’re trying to think what rotations they have to make, they’re trying to think where they have to rotate to as far as moving let alone just keeping their hands up.”

     While trying to improve that defensive effort, the Wizards again will start Gilbert Arenas, Randy Foye, Caron Butler, Antawn Jamison and Brendan Haywood. The Thunder will start the other Zero, Russell Westbrook, Thabo Sefolosha, Kevin Durant, Jeff Green and Nenad Kristic.

     JaVale McGee will be active again after missing the last game with and practice with a sore right knee. Inactives for the Wizards will be Javaris Crittenton, Mike James and Mike Miller. Etan Thomas will not be making a return to Verizon Center, however, because he is home sick with the flu. So much for another clash of Brendan Todd and the Poet, huh.

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