December 13, 2015

May The Force Be With You

I don't get this Washington Wizards team. I realize this kind of up and down, good one night and bad the next sort of stuff is par for the course for the Wizards, but this year was supposed to be different, wasn't it? We've finally had the breakthrough we were looking for and made it to the second round of the playoffs the last two years, now it's time to take it to the next level, maybe a Southeast Division title or maybe a Conference Finals appearance? Heck, maybe even a 47 win season like every other team (other than the expansion Bobcats turned Hornets) has had since I've been a season ticket holder the last 16 years.

Instead what we've got is a 10-12 team that can beat the Cavaliers in Cleveland and then turn around the very next night and lose to a horrendous Los Angeles Lakers team that has no business even being competitive at Verizon Center. Yes, Kobe Bryant had a vintage type performance with 31 points, but John Wall poured in 34 that night. Are you telling me the rest of our lineup can't offset the spare parts the Lakers have on their roster? Yes, I get that there have been a significant number of injuries; we have been missing up to 1/3 of our available roster on any given night and have had to release one player (Martell Webster) because he's just likely to not play ball ever again. But this season's downs have been particularly difficult.

Take this past weekend: in what figured to be an especially grueling week long four game road trip, the bright spot appeared to be Friday night's game in New Orleans against a 5-16 Pelicans team. After road wins the past two weeks in Cleveland and Miami, it seemed like that one was a gimme before certain losses to Dallas, Memphis and San Antonio. Instead, the Wizard laid another egg, allowing the Pels to drop in a franchise record 16 three pointers en route to a two point win. And then turned around the very next night and beat Dallas. Frustrating.

I was not home for the Dallas game so I missed the win. I followed the score and the almost completely blown lead via smartphone and texts from a club on Frenchmen Street in New Orleans. Of course the fact that I was in New Orleans meant I not only saw the Pelicans' win Friday, but I was there for it, as part of my annual commitment to try to eventually see the Wizards in every arena in the NBA. It was Star Wars Night, too. That may have been the best part.

So first things first: the game. Drew Gooden was out. So was Nenê  So was Alan Anderson (hasn't played yet for the Wizards). So was Kris Humphries. And so was Bradley Beal. So fine, we are down to ten men. The team on the other end of the floor had just five wins!! Beal by the way has now missed five of the Wizards 22 games (including Friday and Saturday). Yesterday the team declared him out for at least two weeks. That would have him missing five additional games assuming a return on Boxing Day in Brooklyn. That's 72 games max this year if two weeks holds and he plays every game the rest of the way. And he's hoping for a max deal? Please, don't, Wizards.

Some troubling season long trends continued in a game that quarter by quarter was remarkably close. No team outscored the other by more than two in any one quarter. It's not like the game was a blowout by any stretch of the imagination. Defending the three point shot continues to be an opportunity for improvement and Friday night was not the first time this year the Wizards have been torched from beyond the arc. There have been multiple games with double digit three pointers made from the opposition, including against Oklahoma City (15!), Boston (12 twice!) and Indiana (19!!!). Heck Wes Matthews scored ten by himself when the Mavericks visited Verizon Center a couple of weeks ago. There has to be an adjustment here and fast.

The second trend that has me mighty worried is the Wizards ability to put opponents away. After a sluggish start against the Lakers, the Wiz caught up and pulled ahead momentarily. They should have just put the hammer down and buried the Lakers. Instead, they relaxed on their way to another loss. The same could be said of Friday's game. The Wizards led by seven in the fourth quarter behind an unconscionably good 56.8 percent shooting and couldn't put the Pelicans away. The killer instinct seems to be missing.  If it was ever there.

The concourse of the Smoothie King Center.
I hate losing on the road; walking out of an opponent's building wearing Wizards apparel is humiliating. But I love visiting other NBA arenas. It gets me out of the city and gives me an excuse to see other parts of the country (not like I need one really). It also lets me see how things are like for NBA fans in other teams' houses. Sometimes I'm jealous; other times I'm thankful for what I have at Verizon Center.

The number of times I've felt grateful for Verizon Center is pretty small. Most of this is nothing bad about VC but more a victim of its siting. The lot for our building is inflexibly small. The folks building the arena on F Street downtown did what they could and the place is finished pretty decently, I think. But there's relatively little else in the building because there's just no space on the block where the building is constructed.

In contract to Verizon Center, New Orleans' Smoothie King Center (take your pick between the Pels' building and the Suns' Talking Stick Resort Center as worst name in the NBA) is under no such urban constraints. It's located right next to the famous Superdome just about three quarters of a mile walk from the closest edge of the French Quarter. I love being able to walk or take public transportation to a game; sports absolutely belong in the city's downtown.

But despite being absolutely free to go wild with the building's envelope to incorporate sophisticated special features about the history of basketball in New Orleans or something like that, the Smoothie King Center (hereafter SKC) misses the mark, and I suspect it's all money related. Walking around the concourse of the SKC is like walking around a building not quite moved into. The slabs of the building were clearly cast in place out of concrete and the exposed beams, which do not succeed as an architectural feature here, make the place look unfinished. Combine that with the relatively inexpensive floor and wall materials, and Verizon Center looks like a palace.

The one place that money was spent was on the arena's primary scoreboard. This thing is huge, especially on the long sides, and accommodates all the stats that I crave at Wizards home games in one convenient spot, rather than having to search for them in the corners of the arenas (and sometimes having to wait for the other team's stats to disappear). Definitely an upgrade over Verizon Center's main scoreboard, which at the time it was installed was (I believe) the only high definition scoreboard in the league.

The scoreboard is featured prominently during shoot around and player introductions. This is not much of a surprise. Verizon Center's main display shows images of our players shooting before the game and overlays stats on top of the highlighted player; our player introduction video always plays on the scoreboard too. But I was shocked to see the Wizards prominently featured on the SKC scoreboard during pregame activities and the images of our players on the center display during player intros were about as big as they could get. When he bought the team, Ted Leonsis established (and is maintaining) a zero tolerance policy against highlighting the other team's players in any way. I love Ted's approach. I'm not sure I can remember another arena doing what the Pelicans do. As a Pels fan, I'd hate it. As a Wiz fan, I loved it. Now if we could have just won the damn game...

Metal detectors in the street between the Superdome and Smoothie King Center.
Two final thoughts on the arena experience in New Orleans. First, I loved the entry sequence, primarily or only because the metal detectors are installed in the street, rather than inside the doors of the building as they are at Verizon Center. I suppose the Pelicans have this luxury because it's mostly always warm in southern Louisiana and because there's enough space outside the building to put metal detectors. I'd never seen this done before and I loved it. One of my pet peeves about Verizon Center has been the backed up line out the door during busy games. Great idea!

My final thought is about the food at SKC. New Orleans' food is a trip (and a blog post too apparently but more on that later this week) in itself and I was hoping desperately we'd see some local flavor at the arena. Sure enough, I was right. In addition to smoothies at the Smoothie King stand (of course...) the arena food choices included some southern barbeque of various varieties, a praline stand and a couple of Zatarain's booths serving jambalaya and alligator sausage po' boys. Sounds pretty good, right?

It did to me, too. And being a sucker for exotic meats and having never ever seen alligator on a stadium menu before, I opted for the alligator sausage po' boy, which I imagined would come as a deliciously messy sandwich complete with dressing of some sort and maybe some pickles, lettuce and tomatoes, just like I expect a po' boy to be. And at $10, it seemed like a bargain.

Having no previous standard for alligator sausage at a stadium, I have to say that this was the best one of these I've ever had at a game. But a po' boy it was not. Bun. Sausage. That's it. It was basically an alligator hot dog, which I dressed with mustard, since I always have mustard on hot dogs, and some Tabasco, which I always use on po' boys. Disappointing for sure, but then again it's stadium food, right? I'll take the brats at VC any day even though those lack seasoning.

This game went down to the wire. Gary Neal missed a two point shot at the buzzer which could have tied it, although from our angle at the top of the lower bowl, we didn't understand why John Wall didn't take it all the way to the cup. I guess that's better than a blowout. But there's always a hollow feeling in a road loss (like, I came all this way for THAT???). I have to say the Pelicans fans were gracious and nobody said anything to us unlike some other places (Indiana comes to mind here). I was also surprised by the number of Wizards fans there who appeared to be genuine Wizards fans, not just John Wall fans. I even got a consolation fist bump from a Washington fan on Bourbon Street on my way back from some jazz after the game. 

Oh...and Star Wars night. Didn't get much out of it except a Stormtrooper mug on the way in, which we traded to a dude working at the Bourbon Cowboy for a knitted Budweiser koozie. It's way cooler than it sounds. Next roadie: L.A. in April. Lots of work to do before then.

Alligator sausage po' boy, folks. You are underwhelmed, I know.

No comments:

Post a Comment