- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 26, 2012

On paper, it wasn’t exactly an inspiring matchup, the 22-loss Washington Wizards against the 23-loss Cleveland Cavaliers. The two Eastern Conference cellar dwellers squared off at Verizon Center on Wednesday night, and the Wizards trotted out their 11th starting lineup of the season.

Newly signed point guard Shelvin Mack got the start over Jordan Crawford, who was benched for the start of the game for being late to shootaround, and Nene was back in the starting lineup after coming off the bench while he plays through a recurring foot injury, but is still on a minutes limit.

In the end, the changes made little difference, as the Wizards lost to the Cavaliers 87-84. The Cavaliers improved to 7-23, while the Wizards dropped to 3-23. Once again, the inability to close out an opponent cost the Wizards a game they had every chance to win.

“Making winning plays down the stretch,” Wizards coach Randy Wittman said, when asked where things fell apart. “We turned the ball over at crucial times. We won’t commit, all of us, to playing defense. We make too many critical mistakes because we’re just not alert down the stretch.”

Mack began the game on fire, with four assists and four rebounds in the first quarter. He finished with just six points, seven assists and six rebounds before suffering a strained groin late in the fourth quarter. Garrett Temple, the team’s other new point guard, played in the closing minutes, and a had a good look at a potential game-tying shot, but it didn’t fall. He finished with two points, two assists and three rebounds.

The play of his new floor leaders was one of the few things Wittman was pleased with.

“They’re going to be my point guards,” Wittman said. “We had pace, we had movement, the ball didn’t stick, the ball didn’t dribble. They were thrust into a situation where I think they’ll become more and more comfortable.”

Mack, who got the first start of his career, called it great experience to be back in the the NBA and back in Washington.

“I came out and played hard, we just didn’t get the win today,” Mack said. “It’s a little different playing 40 minutes in the D-League and 40-minutes in the NBA. I felt like the offense was pretty good today, we just had a few mistakes. We have to move the ball and get some easy buckets in transition.”

Temple is learning on the fly, watching film and trying to get up to speed on the team’s plays as quickly as possible. He’s also learning about his new teammates.

“It’s a team that doesn’t give up,” Temple said. “Usually you see a team with a record that we have, sometimes at the end of the game, they’ll give up. But guys kept playing. That’s what you want.”

The Wizards‘ better shooting percentage (46.7 percent to the Cavaliers‘ 37.8) was more than negated by committing twice as many turnovers as the visitors (20-10). Washington also had trouble defending Cleveland guard Kyrie Irving, who led all scorers with 25 points and eight assists.

The Wizards were led by Nene and Jordan Crawford, who each scored 17 points. Nene also had 10 rebounds. The Wizards are an entirely different team when Nene is on the floor, but Wittman and Nene both know that playing him too many minutes could result in a setback and cause him to miss games — something the team cannot afford.

“He plays 25 minutes tonight and he’s a plus-25,” Wittman said of his Brazilian big man. “There’s going to be stretches where he’s got to sit somewhere,” said Wittman, who probably wishes Nene could play 40 minutes a night.

For now, as he plays through the pain in his foot, he’s increasing his minutes slowly, game by game, and hopes that somehow, the Wizards can manage to win a few games until he’s able to resume his normal playing time.

“I’m just trying to play the minutes I can and help the team as best I can,” Nene said. “We played great defense in the first three quarters. In the last quarter, they played better than us. They take advantage in the last minutes.”

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