- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 30, 2014

ORLANDO — Fixes came once the Wizards headed north from Miami’s beautiful-people pulse and landed in Orlando.

For the second consecutive evening, the Wizards were a visitor for the home team’s opening night. Miami treated the event with we-don’t-need LeBron fervor. Orlando hosted a basketball game.

The Wizards were relaxed, all but packed, and up by 17 points late in the third quarter. The young Magic — their starting five had less NBA experience combined than Paul Pierce alone — appeared ready for nap time.

Then, suddenly, coach Randy Wittman thrusted his hands in the air for a timeout. The Wizards led by just three, 96-93, with 3:26 to play. The bad habits from the opener resurfaced. A leisurely evening was quickly undone before the Wizards squeezed out a 105-98 win, their first of the season.

Pierce was relied on during the tumult. He scored twice on baseline jumpers over Ben Gordon. He had a third consecutive hoop slide off the rim after he drop-stepped to the rim.

“It’s never scripted, but that’s what I’m capable of giving this team,” Pierce said. “Another guy to go to in crucial situations. I think there’s a number of guys you can go to, and me being one of them — that’s what I can give us.”

His baskets were enough to steady the Wizards and allow them to leave Florida with a split.

“I liked the way they responded,” Wittman said. “We created more offense from our defense tonight that we did in eight preseason games and last night.”

It was a change from the night before. Wittman was not dancing in the streets after the first win, but he was not speaking with the postgame disdain he carried Wednesday night. Then, with glasses slid down his nose and irritation, Wittman stared at the stat sheet after the loss to the Heat.

A full statistical packet would explain why Wittman was upset. Play-by-play would show Miami scoring 10 consecutive times in the final four minutes of their 107-95 win over the Wizards. Miami point guard Norris Cole had a career-high 23 points. Chris Bosh scored 19 in the first half. Dwyane Wade added 12 points the final 3:45. Constantly caught in defensive rotation during the evening, the Wizards sewed up one cut while another opened.

The Miami shot chart would also show 29 circles around the rim. Ten in the first quarter, five more in the second, eight in the third and, finally, the biggest downfall when Miami was 5-for-6 right at the rim in the fourth quarter.

Just a game into the season, the identity the Wizards wanted to build — that of a defensive, rough-and-tumble team — was distant. Wittman, in so many words, said his team was soft in the opener.

“We didn’t have a presence at the rim,” Wittman said. “We didn’t have a willingness to step in and take a charge or knock somebody down.”

Blame was ubiquitous the first night.

Too often, the guards were beaten off the dribble. That was followed by big men who did not rotate to help. If they did, the secondary rotation did not come.

A final part of the discombobulated formula was the Wizards not corralling long rebounds or loose balls.

The Wizards’ defensive formula is not new. They use many of the same coverages that current Chicago Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau popularized when he was an assistant coach in Boston. Pierce played in that system and spent much of the evening trying to get his teammates properly positioned.

Their defense also starts from the top with John Wall, who continues to grow his game. His 30 points were the most he’s scored since Feb. 27 of last season when he had 31. Wall added 12 assists Thursday night against just two turnovers. He’s the fourth Wizard, joining Gilbert Arenas, Michael Adams and Rod Strickland, who did it twice, to have at least 30 points, 12 assists, five rebounds and two steals in a game.

“(Wednesday), I didn’t have the same type of intensity playing defense,” Wall said. “I knew we couldn’t go into the season starting off 0-2, so I just wanted to come out with more energy and play better on the defensive end.”

The Wizards also had more bodies to protect the rim Thursday night in Orlando. Power forwards Nene and DeJuan Blair returned from one-game suspensions. Nene started and Blair did not play, though he was available. They were suspended after participating in a near brawl with the Chicago Bulls in the first game of the season, a tussle started by Pierce sticking his index finger into Joakim Noah’s forehead.

Nene’s return brought post fierceness the Wizards lacked in the opener. Trying to counter Orlando big man Nikola Vucevic, Washington ran baseline cross screens to get Nene free on consecutive first-half plays. Nene came up with a layup on the first and was fouled on the second.

The Magic started a soft-serve stretch four in Channing Frye. He was another option for Nene to push around in Orlando. In the third quarter, Nene banged Frye out of the way forcing help to come, then slipped a pass to cutting Marcin Gortat for a dunk. Nene finished with 12 points, five assists and four rebounds in his season debut.

The Florida split had its problems, a main one being consistency. The Wizards allowed 15 third-quarter points to the Magic before giving up 32 in the fourth. Orlando shot 51.4 percent in the game.

“It was a lot better, but we still have a ways to go,” Pierce said. “You come in at halftime, a team is shooting 57 percent. Even at the end of the game, we win, but they shot (51.4 percent) in the game. We want to be a team that holds teams to 42 percent, 41 percent field goals, keep them under 100, outrebound them by a large margin. It’s good to get the win, but we’re still trying to find that.”

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