It’s been more than two months since the Philadelphia 76ers spanked the Wizards so resoundingly that Flip Saunders lost his job the next day. The Wizards have continued to undergo more changes since having one of their most troubling losses of the season on Jan. 23 and bear only a slight resemblance to the squad that suffered its third double-digit loss to the 76ers — except, of course, they keep losing.
As the teams meet for the fourth and final time, the Wizards (11-39) have a new coach in Randy Wittman and a new identity since trading away Nick Young and JaVale McGee to get Nene.
Andray Blatche and Rashard Lewis have also been diminished by injuries after playing prominent roles, creating opportunities for Trevor Booker, Chris Singleton and Kevin Seraphin to help make the Wizards a more rugged, defensive-minded unit.
“We are being more physical and that’s how you have to be in this league,” said John Wall, the lone starter remaining on the active roster from that 103-83 loss at Wachovia Center.
The Wizards have gone 9-24 under Wittman and are just 2-7 since making the trade deadline deal, but they also made palpable progress in recent weeks. They have held eight of their past nine opponents below 100 points, after allowing 18 of their previous 20 to top triple digits. They also haven’t lost any games that Nene has played by more than four points.
“They’ve got guys playing for jobs,” Indiana Coach Frank Vogel said. “They are doing some good things over there. Nene is a good addition for them and Randy Wittman is doing a good job.”
Closing games has been the latest obstacle for the Wizards, who have lost three consecutive home games after holding leads of 10 or more points in the second half and offered a clinic on how not to finish. In a loss to Indiana on Thursday, the Wizards led by eight points in the third quarter but broke down during a 14-1 run that contributed to their fifth straight loss. Players have admitted that the continued failure has probably contributed to a complex.
“I’m sure it’s in our heads, but when it comes crunch time, we got to let it go, because if we keep thinking like that, it might keep happening and we’re going to start making mistakes,” Trevor Booker said.
The Wizards have also been in need of offense of late, as they have failed to score at least 90 points in all of but one of their past five games. They are 0-20 this season when they score 89 or fewer points.
Jordan Crawford has picked up some of the scoring burden, becoming the first player in the NBA this season to score 20 or more points in seven straight games. But his questionable shot selection and poor decision-making with the ball has contributed to a few of the late-game meltdowns.
“Things like, when we down two or something like that, instead of me turning it over, we get a good shot; we get the ball to Nene or John get it to the basket,” Crawford said. “We just have to focus in, when we’re tired fatigued and we up 10. When we get a 10-point lead, we act like we got a 20, 30 point lead.”
John Wall has also been in a funk that that has either been caused by fatigue or adjusting to playing with Nene. He has failed to score more than 16 points in any of his past six games and also come up short with the ball in his hands in the final minute. On Thursday, he committed a turnover with the Wizards trailing by two points, but chose to focus on the positives.
“I like the effort we’re playing with. We are into a lot more games. We got to do a better job of finding a way to close out these games,” said Wall, who is averaging just 12.5 points and shooting 32.5 percent (25 of 77) since Nene suited up. “We are getting there.”
For a team that has been getting blown out with regularity in most of this season — it has lost 22 games by 10 or more points — losing close games is actually progress and has given the Wizards more confidence as they face a 76ers team that has own it, dating back to the preseason.
“You can see the intensity ever since the all-star break,” Chris Singleton said. “We feel like we picked it up. were getting a lot more respect from other teams. You can see on the court how its translating.”