MINNEAPOLIS | For the Washington Wizards to play consistent enough basketball to win five or six in a row, as coach Flip Saunders predicted earlier this week they soon would, they will have to find a way to eliminate stinkers like this from their repertoire.
They brought a two-game winning streak into Saturday’s game against the Minnesota Timberwolves, an immature outfit still trying to rebuild from the free fall that got Saunders fired midway through the 2004-05 season. And the Wizards did what good teams won’t do: They let the Timberwolves hang around past the point where mistakes would be fatal, then watched young legs trump veteran performers.
The day-after-Christmas contest, played in a half-empty Target Center, never pretended to be anything other than a pair of bad NBA teams trying to win despite numerous flaws. In the end, though, the Timberwolves outhustled the Wizards and came away with just their seventh win of the year by beating Washington 101-89.
And the Wizards, trying for their first three-game win streak since April 2008, were again left searching.
“We didn’t call them the worst team in the West, but it’s not like we’ve got that many wins over them,” said guard Gilbert Arenas, who needed 28 shots to score his 26 points and went 1-for-8 in the fourth quarter. “Right now, we’re one of the worst teams in the East. We win two, we lose four, until we turn it around and go out and play like we’re hungry instead of playing like we’re looking for something.”
The frustration was palpable afterward; Saunders, who hadn’t lost here in any of his return trips with the Detroit Pistons, walked past reporters without stopping to answer questions before returning later for a brief interview, and several players said the Wizards’ effort was unacceptable.
In the first half, the Wizards (10-18) alternated stretches where they looked as if they could stretch out a lead against the Timberwolves with spurts where they struggled to match Minnesota’s effort, particularly in the paint. The Timberwolves grabbed 11 offensive rebounds in the first half, taking a 43-42 lead into halftime.
Referee Marc Davis hit assistant coach Don Zierden with a technical foul midway through the first quarter, telling Saunders: “I’ll talk to you, but we’re not going to hear it from the bench all night. That’s it.”
The Timberwolves started the second half on a 9-1 run with center Al Jefferson beginning to establish himself inside.
Right about then, Minnesota started to look like exactly what it is - a team full of young players who haven’t yet figured out how to generate consistent offense. Rookie point guard Jonny Flynn, in the middle of a frigid shooting performance, didn’t let that stop him from chucking one off-balance jumper after another.
The Timberwolves sat Flynn for the second half of the third quarter but struggled to get consistent ballhandling from backups Ramon Sessions and Wayne Ellington. And shooting guard Gilbert Arenas, playing two days after reports surfaced he had violated an NBA rule by storing firearms at his Verizon Center locker, surged for 12 points in the third quarter.
But as the game wound down and Minnesota’s backups stopped turning the ball over, it was clear Arenas’ counterproductive tendencies would hurt the Wizards. He needed 28 shots to score his 26 points. His teammates also continued to settle for ill-advised jumpers.
Arenas and Antawn Jamison combined for 42 shots, hitting just 16 of them, and Randy Foye was the only other Wizards player with 10 field goal attempts.
“He did too much,” Saunders said of Arenas. “And I’m sure other players got frustrated because he took a lot of shots. It’s like… when you get in quicksand, the harder you try, the quicker you sink.”
Corey Brewer had a career-high 27 points for Minnesota on 9-for-16 shooting. And the Timberwolves, ranked third in the NBA in rebounding, generated 22 second-chance points. The Wizards had just seven.
“All the things we talked about, what we had to stop tonight - keep them off the glass, do not turn the ball over, move the ball, do not take quick shots, do not make home run-type plays - it’s like we did the antithesis of that, the complete opposite,” Saunders said. “When you do that, you get beat by 11 or 12 by a team that’s not very good.”