The Washington Times - December 11, 2009, 12:33AM

     The Wizards altered the script just a bit tonight. They avoided their sluggish first quarter and actually led heading into the second quarter.  

     But that slump hit them in the second quarter.


     True to form, they rebounded and made a game it, but didn’t have enough to win down the stretch.

     The Wizards in the second quarter allowed the Celtics to post a .750 shooting clip, and Washington went the entire quarter without grabbing a rebound. They also were plagued by poor shot selection early in the quarter, and the Celtics capitalized.

     “We probably played one of our best first quarters all year here at home, Flip Saunders said. “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.”

     The Wizards need to find a way to avoid these slumps that plague them. As Flip has said, when you’re constantly having to battle from behind, you don’t settle into your offense and you’re playing frantic basketball.

     While he acknowledged that Washington needed to have played better in the second quarter, Antawn Jamison wasn’t concerned over the second-quarter lull as much as he was his team’s inability to close games.

     “We can’t dwell on what happened in the second quarter. We found a way to get it done and make a game out of it. We’ve just got to play smart down the stretch,” Jamison said. “We’re not executing offensively, defensively we’re messing up on the rotations. I’m more concerned about that, especially with the close basketball games. You’ve got to find a way to create easy opportunities for yourself and not turn the ball over, and don’t let them get easy opportunities on the offensive end. We do a good job as far as if we do get down we get back into it, but we’ve got to find a better way to execute down the stretch.”

     The Wizards can thank their big men that they were even in the game late. Brendan Haywood scored nine of his 17 points during the third-quarter comeback that dug Washington out of a 14-point hole and allowed them to take a 72-70 lead with five minutes left in the third before they slipped up again and trailed 83-74 entering the fourth.

     Then in the fourth quarter, Andray Blatche scored nine of his 17 points off the bench and put the Washington back in the game. His fadeaway jumper with three minutes left and putback with 2:23 left allowed the Wizards to tie the game 94-94.

     The Wizards down the stretch, got just about everything they wanted. Gilbert Arenas was at the line with a chance to tie the game. Only he missed both foul shots. Then a short time later and down by three, Arenas had an open look at a 3-pointer, but the ball clanked off the rim.

     The Wizards simply didn’t have enough. Gil had a much better game than we’ve seen lately. But his five missed foul shots (especially the two late) were big negatives for the Wizards.

     This is a very good Boston team, so you have to give them credit, but the Wizards definitely could have won this game.

     So here we are. Twenty games in the books. Who/what are the Wizards? Have we seen enough to know? I believe we have. The Wizards are a team that doesn’t yet know it’s identity, players don’t know their roles, and don’t always play smart — as is evidence of the rushed shots in the second quarter, and the eight 3-pointers attempted in the fourth quarter (they made only two) when they should have been driving.

     And so, that’s the Wizards: struggling.

     Is what can be expected the rest of the way? Sure, the Wizards will make some improvements, and they still may make the playoffs. But it looks like there will be a lot of narrow misses for this team, whether it be against a Boston, Orlando, Cleveland, or whether it be in a playoff series — if they make the playoffs. Based on what we see now, it wouldn’t be surprising to see them finishing just out of reach of the playoffs, which would be far from what anyone expected when they reported for training camp.

     They CAN turn things around, but will they?

       They have talent, they have pieces. But they’re not quite good enough. And a big reason for that is they can’t get the group formerly called ‘The Big Three’ to produce at that old level again. Arenas had a good game, with 25 points and eight assists. Jamison had an alright game (16 points and eight assists) but again took five 3-pointers (too many for him.

     Butler, meanwhile, continues to struggle in Saunders’ offense. Tonight he was 3-for-10 from the field with 10 points.

     Flip was asked what they have to do to get Butler going, and he seems as puzzled as anyone. He said that a big part of his reason for playing DeShawn Stevenson in the second half instead of Nick Young was to put more pressure on Arenas, Jamison and Butler to score and perform like the All-Star status they have earned in the past.

     How do the Wizards get Butler going?

     “That’s what we keep on [saying]. We have our meetings, and we keep on talking about that,” Saunders said. “To his credit, he’s good defensively and he rebounded well. But we’re not doing a good job setting screens and getting him open, and when he gets it, some of these teams are loding up on him. … We’re hoping that by pushing the ball up the floor more, we can get him some more open-floor opportunities, but we do have to get him free on more situations.”

     The Wizards also must improve their mental toughness. A .630 clip from the foul line is proof of this. And that poor free throw shooting is always coming back to bite them.

     Now, instead of banking on their franchise player to save them with clutch free throws, the Wizards don’t know what to expect.

     “In a minute they going be trying, ‘Hack-a-Wizards,’ where they are just fouling us,” admitted Arenas, who was so frustrated following the game that he went straight to the practice court and took 50 foul shots, trying to figure out what’s wrong. “After I got hurt, I’m shooting like 68 percent from the free throw line. Right now, it’s the back of the rim, front of the rim. It’s just terrible right now. I’m going up there, shooting it and letting it fly. I just wanted to see what was going on, is it mechanics? Am I leaning? Doing something? I went down there and I don’t know?”

     The quote of the night best sums things up as far as the state of the 7-13 Wizards go.

     “I think tonight, we were facing a possible championship team and we played all the way down to the wire,” Arenas said. “I would say that’s progression. We get up for games like this. [But] right now, we’re a bottom feeder team until we start proving [otherwise].”