- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 30, 2009

After watching his team blow yet another fourth-quarter lead and lose - this time 110-98 to the visiting Oklahoma City Thunder - Washington Wizards coach Flip Saunders couldn’t contain himself Tuesday night.

All season long, following each of the previous nine defeats decided by five points or fewer, Saunders had stressed the need for his players to dedicate themselves to defending - especially late in games.

But there the Wizards were again. They had traded leads with the Thunder nine times - three times in the first half of the fourth quarter alone - before going up 90-89 with 7:43 to play. Then came the customary collapse by the Wizards and charge by their opponent.

Layups, wide-open 3-pointers, breakaway dunks. Another deflating defeat.

And a fed-up Saunders went off.

“This team needs a mindset change. This team for the last five years has been known as one of the worst defensive teams in the league, and until we make a commitment…” Saunders said, stopping himself short before hunkering down in front of the microphone. “We couldn’t stop anybody out there. We could’ve taken five guys out of this room and they would’ve had a chance. …

“[Oklahoma City] is playing a lot better, but that is not the Cleveland Cavaliers or the Los Angeles Lakers or one of those teams yet. Until they score on you and it hurts, we’re kidding ourselves.”

The Wizards, who fell to 10-20 by dropping their third straight, appeared to have a chance early on, but then they suffered another of their customary slumps.

Washington got off to an 8-2 start before Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks called a timeout with 7:51 left in the first quarter. Whatever he told his players worked: The Thunder reeled off a 20-9 run to go up 22-17 before Saunders called a timeout with 3:57 left in the quarter.

The Wizards continued to slog their way through the game while the Thunder continued to roll in the second quarter and extended their lead to 40-29.

With 7:51 left in the first half, Antawn Jamison made a pair of free throws to jump-start a 24-5 charge for the Wizards. Washington took a 53-45 lead before Oklahoma City mustered signs of life and pulled within 55-53 at halftime.

The Wizards had primarily used a zone defense to slow the Thunder in the second quarter, but in the third Oklahoma City found a way around it to make 10 of its 19 field goal attempts - further stoking Saunders’ frustrations.

“Zone got us back in the game, and we did well playing some zone. And then guys want to come out of the zone and play man-to-man, but they can’t guard anybody!” the coach fumed. “I could go out there on that floor and take anyone on our team one-on-one at [54] years old and drive around them.”

Meanwhile, the Wizards struggled offensively as well and made only nine of their 24 shots in the third quarter. They still managed to score 21 points (two fewer than the Thunder), and the fourth began with the score knotted at 76-76.

Then came the familiar refrain for the Wizards.

They traded baskets with the Thunder for the first four minutes and led 90-89. Then came the collapse. And the boys with local flavor dressed in OKC uniforms took advantage.

Former Virginia Commonwealth standout Eric Maynor drove for a layup, then Georgetown product Jeff Green followed with one of his own. D.C. native Kevin Durant drove baseline and flushed an easy two-handed jam, and Green came back with a 3-pointer. In less than two minutes, the Thunder had gone from two down to up 98-92.

Russell Westbrook scored seven straight points as the Thunder closed out the game and earned their fourth straight victory against Washington.

That iced a victorious homecoming for Durant, who led the Thunder with 35 points, 11 rebounds and four assists, and Green, who had 18 points and four rebounds. Washington’s nonexistent defense made 28 points from Jamison, 24 from Gilbert Arenas and double-digit scoring from the other three starters insignificant.

• Mike Jones can be reached at mjones@washingtontimes.com.

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