- The Washington Times - Monday, February 12, 2007

If it’s true adversity helps build character, then the Washington Wizards have learned a great deal about themselves in the last five games.

A season brimming with good times has taken a sudden wrong turn, as evidenced by the Wizards’ 94-73 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers at Verizon Center yesterday. Not only was it perhaps the Wizards’ ugliest loss of the year, it confirmed a leadership gap and potential fissures in accountability and communication.

After the game, star guard Gilbert Arenas questioned what he believed to be an increased emphasis on defense that he claims has stripped the team of its identity and damaged what has worked for most of the season.

Wizards coach Eddie Jordan, who usually keeps his emotions in check, delayed his usual postgame media appearance for several minutes, then struggled to control his anger when he did show up. He labeled questions about the topic of defense as “stupid,” while bluntly affirming that the absence of injured forward Antawn Jamison leaves his club lacking an on-court leader with no immediate prospects to fill the job in sight.

“Leadership is something that’s very special,” Jordan said. “Very special. And we don’t have that. But Antawn has that, and that’s why he’s the only captain on the team. I’ve tried to have name guys the last couple of years be captains, and it doesn’t work, because they don’t have the qualities.”

Arenas, who often will use slights against him — real or perceived — for inspiration, entered the game preceded by his prediction of scoring 50 points against the Trail Blazers. Portland coach Nate McMillan ostensibly was one of those responsible for leaving Arenas off the U.S. national team last summer. Arenas said he would exact revenge against McMillan much like he did in December when he scored 54 points against Phoenix and its coach, Mike D’Antoni, another presumed villain.

But frequently hounded by double teams, Arenas finished with more fouls than baskets and scored just nine points, making three of 15 shots and going 0-for-8 from 3-point range. DeShawn Stevenson led the Wizards with 12 points on 5-for-10 shooting.

Portland guard Jarrett Jack, who primarily was matched up on Arenas, led the Blazers with 18 points on 5-for-8 shooting. Rookie forward LaMarcus Aldridge also scored 18 points and added 10 rebounds for Portland, which got its second win in a row after losing three straight.

Since beating Detroit on Jan. 30 despite losing Jamison to a sprained left knee early in the game, the Wizards have won only one of five games. Jamison, who averages 19.3 and 7.9 rebounds a game, will be out for the next several weeks.

“As a player, I’m very embarrassed,” Wizards forward Caron Butler said. “I’m a fan of the game, and that was just bad basketball today.”

The Wizards (28-21) looked lethargic from the get-go before a sellout crowd of 20,173, scoring a season low on 38 percent shooting. Washington scored only 12 points in the first quarter and trailed 41-30 at halftime. The Wizards were outrebounded 41-32 and generally were outhustled by one of the league’s worst teams.

Arenas believes the timing of Jordan’s increased emphasis on defense — with Jamison’s injury and the intrasquad skirmish between centers Brendan Haywood and Etan Thomas leaving the team short-handed — has had a negative effect on one of the league’s more productive offenses.

“We have a new philosophy now, and that is focusing on defense,” Arenas said. “With everything that’s going around, the fight going on and everything, it’s not the right time. We’re focusing on the wrong things now. Focus on what got us here.”

Arenas also was critical of his coach’s decision to take players out of the game early and often after defensive mistakes. Jordan used 10 players in the first quarter alone.

“Truthfully, at the end of the day it’s hard to play like that,” Arenas said. “Players are gonna make great plays, but if you get penalized for it, you’re out there playing like a robot.

“We’re who we are. We’re a high-scoring team. We’re a running team. That’s what we do. When you tell the team, ‘Hey, we don’t have Antawn anymore, we can’t outscore people, we have to go out and stop people,’ for a scoring team it kind of takes the air out of you.”

Even before Jamison’s injury, though, Jordan believed the defense would have to tighten up if any one of the Big Three were hurt.

“It has to be defense,” Jordan said. “Who else is gonna score and do the things Antawn does? So when you talk about defensive emphasis, I don’t know why you think that’s a legitimate question to ask me. …

“When you guys approach me with what Gil said about defense, I don’t know why you guys ask me that. It’s stupid. Just plain stupid. The whole idea of us having to have to play defense better, is that a problem or is that a question?”

The Wizards, who have lost two in a row and all but one of their games this month, take on the Philadelphia 76ers on Wednesday before the start of the All-Star break. Washington has beaten Philadelphia once already this season — 113-98 on Dec. 8.

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