- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 22, 2009

— There’s a lesson in here somewhere, although finding it right now is about as hard for the Wizards as locating victory.

Saturday night’s 128-96 loss to Phoenix followed an all-too-familiar script for the Wizards. In their fourth road loss in five nights, the Wizards had just nine active players — with two of them fighting through injuries that normally would have sidelined them.

“It’s been the story of our season, to be honest with you,” said center Darius Songaila, who is playing through a shoulder injury while Oleksiy Pecherov battles plantar fasciitis in his foot. “So many guys have been hurt and out of the lineup from the first day of training camp. We’re numb to it now. You just take it as you go.

Meanwhile, the opponents remain highly motivated, either fighting for playoff seeds or in Saturday’s case, a Suns team clawing at their last gasp to make the postseason at all. There was also history to consider as Phoenix center Shaquille O’Neal, bothered only mildly by totally out-massed Songaila, passed Moses Malone to become the fifth leading scorer in NBA history (27,411) in the third quarter.

What’s left of the Wizards made things interesting for two-plus quarters, never leading but trailing by only four at the half and pulling within a point (58-57) on the first of back-to-back Mike James penetration moves. But from there the Suns started launching 3-pointers and making them — Jason Richardson hit five straight which Washington tried to match.

But the available Wizards don’t shoot the long ball like the Gilbert Arenas/Caron Butler model (2-for-15) and Phoenix galloped away to a 71-point second half.

“If we go into this game with the idea of matching 3-point shots with Phoenix, then our chances will not be very good,” interim coach Ed Tapscott said. “We got off to a slow start (16 points in the first quarter) and when you have to grind your way back, which we managed to do, you expend a lot of energy.”

But the Wizards are still playing hard. And with six of the nine players on the floor 23 years old or younger, coaches and management is getting a long look at who might be able to help when and if Washington’s “Big Three” are ever back on the floor at the same time.

“We’re playing a lot of minutes and in situations that we haven’t been in before and it’s got to help you,” said Wizards guard Nick Young, who had 20 points in Denver on Friday but struggled to a 3-for-11 night in Phoenix. “Guys who were backups are now starters. Guys who weren’t playing are now getting time. But when you remember we were fighting for the playoffs last year, going through this is hard.

“Hopefully, going through it will keep it from happening again.”

Tapscott has seen stretches of good play, unfortunately followed by backward steps that inevitably do the Wizards in.

“There are times when we make very good plays and times when we do things that leave you scratching your head. That’s what happens with young players,” he said. “But Pecherov has gotten some big minutes and did some good things. Guard [Javaris] Crittenton has played pretty well. [Dominic] McGuire continues to be a stalwart for us and Young and [Andray] Blatche and [JaVale] McGee have had their moments on this trip. They have also learned some lessons at the hands of some wily veterans.”

Saturday’s teachers included O’Neal (13 points, 11 rebounds), Steve Nash (17 points) and Grant Hill, who have more NBA tenure (41 years) than the entire Wizards active roster.

Washington’s old sage, Antawn Jamison, rebounded from a 1-for-7 shooting start to lead Washington with 25 points. But by the time he heated up, Richardson (25 points on 13-for-18 shooting) was scalding and the Suns had won their fourth straight game for the first time all season — accounting for their ninth-place, outside-looking-in standing in the West.

The Wizards hope to have Butler, Juan Dixon (Achilles’ tendon) back soon. The rest of the long term wounded will require, as Tapscott put it “celestial intervention.”

There was no sign of that on this trip. But the longest of journeys start with baby steps.

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