The Washington Times - December 10, 2009, 08:10AM

     Flip Saunders this week has basically taken the Washington Wizards back to training camp, running them through longer practices than usual, and getting them back to the basics.

     And by basics, I mean working on everything from how to properly lead a fast break off of an opponents’ missed shots to how to set screens.


     Pretty amazing considering these guys are professionals, but Saunders said the Wizards really haven’t been asked to set screens the last few years and seem to have forgotten things. And during last year’s 19-63 season when Saunders — going over film — observed the Wizards “inventing ways to lose,” his players have developed some pretty bad habits.

     “I think the biggest adjustment we’ve had as a team and you can say system-wise or whatever, has been they’ve gone from a team that never really sets screens,” Saunders said. “When you run the Princeton offense, you don’t have to set screens. Most teams in our league, you set screens because what you do is, you put wood on people and what you do is wear him out. It’s the easiest way to get open shots for people. We’ve spent the last couple of days, just the basics of back when you were in junior high, learning how to set a screen. Just trying to get back to the basics of doing those things.”

     Saunders admitted yesterday that he is surprised how bad the Wizards are so far this season. He has been encouraged by the strides Washington has made on defense and in rebounding (where they rank third in the league), but offensively, he expected his players to be much better.

     “The area I thought we wouldn’t have a problem was turning the ball over and scoring points. I didn’t think that would be a problem,” Saunders said. “No matter what you pretty much ended up doing and that’s something we’ve pretty much had a problem with. The other thing is just from being consistent and more from a consistent standpoint. And more from having a closer like player like Gil and those people, I thought we’d be able to do a better job of taking care of the ball in late game situations.”

     I’ve said, and I think everyone has realized for a while now, as Gilbert Arenas goes, so go the Wizards. The games that he’s aggressive and just playing, Washington has a chance. The games where he comes out flat, and apparently disinterested are the games where the Wizards aren’t good enough to get out of their own way, and end up losing.

    So, Saunders continues to stress to Arenas the importance of attacking and playing with a more natural flow rather than going into games, or coming up the floor thinking “I’m going to get an assist this time,” or “I’m going to score.” Just play. Get up the floor and take things as they come. Instead, Arenas is limiting himself and forcing things, which results in poor shooting performance or a boatload of turnovers.

     “We’ve got a guy like Gil who is coming off not playing for two years, and I found out one thing on Gil, he gets very much focused on one thing and it’s tough to get him off that,” Saunders said. “He came this season because he heard so much about how he played in the past and I’ve had talks with him every other day, like, ‘I’m going to get assists.’ And I said, ‘You can’t gointo game saying what you’re going to do, it just happens. That’s like a quarterback saying, I’m going to throw touchdowns. [Or a hitter saying he’s going to hit homeruns]. You know what happens when you’re tyring to hit homeruns, you strike out and when you’re trying to get touchdowns, you throw interceptions. And so, that’s probably one of the reasons why he’s leading the league in turnovers. Because he’s trying to jam a square peg into a round hole at times. But that will come in time.”

     Like Saunders, the Wizards are just as taken aback by their poor start. But they are clear that the problem isn’t anything with their coach or his philosophies. The problem is in their department.

    “Are we surprised we’re 7-12? Yes,” Brendan Haywood said. “Even with Antawn out, I thought we’d be 12-7, maybe a little better. It comes down to us, man. It’s nothing that Flip’s doing. It’s executing and taking what we do in practice and applying it to gameplans correctly.”

     After back-to-back days of three-hour practices, we’ll see how the Wizards do tonight. They’ll run into a tough opponent tonight in the Boston Celtics, who have won eight straight games, rank first in the league defensively, and are 9-1 on the road.

     “It’s a big challenge,” Haywood said. “They’re a good team with great principles. Everyone plyas hard and we know it’s going to be tough tomorrow. First thing, we have to match their intensity. With them having Kevin Garnett back this year, he ups their intensity. You have Perkins, Paul pierce, they really feed off his energy. Then after that we have to play real good principle basketball: good offense, good defense, good execution.”

 > In one other Wizards-related area, a report came out yesterday that the Miami Heat are interested in acquiring Mike James, who is buried on Washington’s depth chart and is just coming back from injury.

     I talked to multiple sources and there’s nothing going on here for now. James, I’m told, would love to return to Miami, where he played in 2001-02, but that the teams aren’t engaged in any discussions. One sourse said this was discussed in the offseason, but never grew any legs. It doesn’t mean it can’t turn into something as February’s trade deadline approaches, however.