- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 31, 2009

After weeks of trying either to look on the bright side in regards to his team’s poor performances or find diplomatic ways to discuss its shortcomings, Flip Saunders scrapped all that Tuesday night.

The Wizards had suffered their 20th loss, a 110-98 defeat to Oklahoma City, and a failure to commit on defense again was to blame. On Tuesday night - like so many nights before it - the Wizards blew a fourth-quarter lead while letting their opponents dribble circles around them, shoot over them and dunk on them.

Said Saunders in a blunt postgame rant: “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 - we couldn’t stop anybody out there. … We need a total mindset change. … Whether it’s lineup changes, it’s all up in the air right now. I’m frustrated as anybody, but I feel bad for the people who came to the game and had to watch that. … We’ll come back to practice in two days, and spots will be open for whoever. And if guys don’t like it, that’s fine. Because I’m not going to sit here and look at that anymore. Through 30 games, you evaluate for 30 games, and now the way it’s going it ain’t getting going.”

Saunders called out his players for not being able to play man-to-man defense, forcing him to use zone. He claimed that he, at 54 years of age, could take any one of his players one-on-one.

Later in the locker room, the embarrassed Wizards couldn’t disagree.

“I think it was a very good observation,” center Brendan Haywood said of Saunders’ statement on the inability to play man-to-man defense.

“He’s correct,” Gilbert Arenas said. “Right now we stink, and we’re showing it.”

Caron Butler, normally upbeat and always one to find a positive lining, replied: “I haven’t thought about it yet. I have to think about it on the way home and let it digest, but if he feels that way, you got to go with the coach.”

The Wizards always have said the right things when it comes to defense. They entered the season proclaiming that Saunders’ simplified defensive philosophies would position them for more success than in the past. But the shortcomings have persisted. After losses and before games, Washington’s players have discussed the need to play smart and, most important, play defense.

But there’s a disconnect between talking about executing and actually carrying out that execution. The reason for that also remains a mystery. But Arenas - who played only 15 games in the previous two regular seasons and watched his teammates struggle through a 19-63 season - said bad habits must have been developed during that time.

“The last two years, we’ve got a loser mentality,” Arenas surmised. “We’re finding ways to lose basketball games. From forcing shots to turnovers, if you can think of it, we’re doing it.”

Haywood, meanwhile, said Washington’s problems stem from players choosing to focus on offense rather than defending.

“Defensively, it’s attitude. It’s taking pride. Sometimes we get mad at the wrong things,” said Haywood, who is consistently one of the Wizards’ best defenders. “We get mad that a guy didn’t see you on offense and you didn’t get your shot. Get mad when your guy blows by you; get mad when we’re not playing defense. That’s when we’ll grow as a team.”

The Wizards, now 10 games below the .500 mark, get back to work Thursday for practice - and according to Saunders, jobs will be up for grabs. The calendar year of 2009 wasn’t kind to the Wizards, and they are glad to put it behind them. But they also know that just because 2010 is upon them, their fortunes won’t change unless they do themselves.

“Three days, one day, 10 days - if we don’t want to win, then it’s not gonna go,” Arenas said. “It’s disappointing. Look at this record: 10-19 or, what, 10-20? Yeah, the record speaks for itself. … It’s not like we’re going to turn all of a sudden into a good ball club. Progress needs to build from within. Coach can draw up all the plays and defensive schemes he wants, but if we’re not executing, we’re going to be 10-20.”

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

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