- The Washington Times - Friday, January 1, 2010

The Washington Wizards had just under 48 hours to digest the harsh criticism coach Flip Saunders laid upon them during his postgame press conference after their 110-98 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder on Tuesday. And when they practiced for the first time since then on Thursday, they brought the kind of effort and intensity the coach was looking for.

Third-year guard Nick Young said the three-hour practice, which centered on defense, felt like a high school practice because of all the running. Backcourt mate Randy Foye said it was the most intense practice he had endured since coming to the Wizards during the offseason. And Caron Butler - one of the three team captains - said Saunders’ message was taken to heart.

The Wizards - owners of a 10-20 record and losers of three straight - were put on notice by Saunders that starting jobs and spots in the rotation were up for grabs. And the starters - not wanting to be demoted - ran through practice with just as much motivation as the backups.

Saunders wasn’t ready to make decisions on those lineup and rotation changes just yet but does expect changes in both his players’ mindsets and the way he hands out minutes. He also expects improvement.

“Intensity, intelligence - those are the two main things - and understanding,” Saunders said. “I told them we worked hard but we might not see the results in the next 48 hours, but we’ll see it in the next week or so. I gave 30 games to evaluate, and I said it’s just not going to work this way. I haven’t gotten to that point [of making a trade], just a mental standpoint on who plays and at what time of the game and getting guys to understand our sense of urgency.”

Saunders spoke to some players individually, pointing out the shortcomings he saw in their play. One of the players was Butler, whom Saunders challenged during training camp to become the team’s ace defensive stopper.

“We talked about just some of the things I need to get back to - not second-guessing yourself out there and trying to fit in,” Butler said. “That’s been what’s going on the majority of the time, just trying to fit in and do the right thing instead of playing your game and being free out there and thinking too much. That’s when I’m at my best.”

Butler said Saunders’ criticism - that the Wizards are unable to play competent one-on-one defense and that the coach could take five members of the press and put them on the floor and see them have success against Washington’s players - did sting. But rather than sulk, he decided to use it to light a fire under himself and his teammates.

“I’m a man first. I’ve got pride and take pride in anything I do, especially on the court,” Butler said. “To see [Saunders’ critical comments], we exchanged words and he told me he expected more from me in particular, and some of the things he wanted and I said, ‘Don’t worry about it. I got the message.’ And I’m pretty sure everybody else did too, so we honed in practice today.”

Saunders said Butler was the best player on the court in practice Thursday and that the two-time All-Star had his best practice all year. Such a response is exactly what the Wizards need - especially from Butler and fellow starters Gilbert Arenas and Antawn Jamison, the coach said.

Arenas said the Wizards had developed “a loser mentality,” but Saunders said such talk is unacceptable and that his three captains must lead the team on a rebound.

“We can say we have a loser mentality and Gil can say that, but when you have the money that those three have, you better never talk about losing,” Saunders said on Thursday. “You’re making $20 mil, you’re getting paid to win - bottom line. Don’t blame it on the guy making $300,000. This is a league that you get paid based on your production and your expectations are. It’s up to them to change that mentality. They have to carry us.”

And if it’s up to Butler - the only member of the captain trio who spoke to the media Thursday - Saunders will get exactly that.

“When it all goes back, it’s going to fall back on us. We’re the captains, leaders of the ballclub. We’ve got great personnel and got guys healthy, so we’ve got to lead guys to wins,” Butler said. “When you’re at the point we’re at now, you go back to the basics, and that’s defense, protecting the paint.”

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

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