Thornton, others pick up time with Howard lost for season

February 26, 2010|By Gene Wang | The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — — Practice was well over for the Washington Wizards at Verizon Center on Thursday, and every player except one had left the court for the comforts of the locker room. Only Al Thornton remained, and he stayed almost half an hour longer working on his jump shot as general manager Ernie Grunfeld alternated watching and engaging in conversation with coach Flip Saunders.

Thornton had just played more than 35 minutes the night before and scored 16 points with a game-high 11 rebounds in a 99-94 loss to the visiting Memphis Grizzlies, but instead of hitting the showers and heading home to rest, one of the most recent additions to the team saw fit to push himself just a bit more.

"I'm trying to get my body back right, get into game speed," Thornton said as he wiped sweat from his forehead with a towel. "I'm playing a lot of minutes, so when I can get the extra conditioning, I'm going to try to."

Thornton's role, along with that of many teammates, has changed dramatically in recent days since the Wizards learned Josh Howard would be lost for the season. Howard had been averaging 17 points per game through his first three with the Wizards, who acquired the starting guard as part of a deal with the Dallas Mavericks during the All-Star break.

But in Monday night's 101-95 victory over the Chicago Bulls, Howard landed hard and fell to the court with 4 minutes, 23 seconds left in the first quarter. He had to be assisted to the locker room, and the next morning the team revealed that Howard had a tear in the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee that required surgery.

"That's a huge adjustment for us," forward Andray Blatche said about losing Howard. "He was an All-Star player. He brought hustle. He brought scoring. He brought energy to the team, all the stuff we needed."

Now those responsibilities fall to any number of players on a team without an established go-to presence after a series of trades retooled the roster. Among the most prominent moves were sending two-time All-Star Antawn Jamison to the Cleveland Cavaliers and dealing Caron Butler, another two-time All-Star, and steady center Brendan Haywood to the Mavericks.

Gilbert Arenas, a three-time All-Star, remains under contract, but he is unavailable to play after the league in late January suspended him for the rest of the season for bringing firearms to the Verizon Center locker room. Guard Javaris Crittenton also was suspended for the remainder of the season in connection with the incident.

Thornton started in place of Howard against the Grizzlies and had his playing time increase for a third straight game. Since joining the Wizards from the Los Angeles Clippers in a three-way trade, Thornton has played no fewer than 26 minutes.

In his first game with Washington, on Feb. 19 against the Denver Nuggets, Thornton played more than 32 minutes and led the team in scoring with 21 points on 7-for-12 shooting. He added five rebounds, four blocks and two steals in a 107-97 victory over the team with the second-best record in the Western Conference.

"Everyone has to change their role a little bit now," Saunders said of Thornton and the team adjusting to playing without Howard. "So what happens is we don't have as much pop as far as off the bench, and it hurts a little bit because you try to be as aggressive as you want to be, but guys are playing even three more or four more extra minutes, and it wears them down, or you get into foul trouble. Before, a guy picks up one or two fouls, we'd have someone else to throw in, and we didn't have as much of a drop-off."

To compensate and allow newer players, such as Thornton, Quinton Ross and James Singleton, to conserve their energy in anticipation of extended playing time, the Wizards have made a conscious effort to scale back the most rigorous conditioning during practice or simply have shortened workouts altogether.

The results over the past five games have been three wins and more attention to defense and sharing the ball. Over that stretch, the Wizards are averaging 22 assists per game. In the five previous games, Washington averaged fewer than 17.

"It's really about the effort, the teamwork," Grunfeld said the other day. "The chemistry, obviously, is a lot better. Guys are moving the ball. Guys are playing together. Our defense has been better, and some of our young guys have really stepped up. This will give us a real good chance going down the road to evaluate what we have and where we are."

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