As he walked out of the visiting locker room at Amway Center, Trevor Ariza coughed into his left arm, covering the germs from his teammates. Ariza was recovering from the flu and covered his mouth with a towel when he sat on the bench during the Wizards’ 97-92 loss to the Orlando Magic.
Martell Webster grimaced and groaned as head athletic trainer Eric Waters stretched him before the game, and said he used “mind over matter” to avoid letting his strained abdomen limit him as he scored 19 points. And A.J. Price admitted that he felt some slight discomfort as he returned after missing the previous nine games with a sore groin.
“Still a little lingering, but I felt pretty good, being that I was out for as long as I was,” Price said after scoring four points in the loss. “I been feeling better over the last couple of days. Got kind of tired of seeing my team out there with seven or eight players, fighting, giving everything they had, so I just wanted to contribute any way I could.”
Price, Webster and Ariza all brought a sense of urgency with their decisions to play while still being ill or banged up, but that didn’t carry over into the effort the Wizards brought against the Magic.
And predictably, the level at which the Wizards decided to play was predicated by the quality of the opposition. Orlando had the league’s second-worst record, was on an eight-game slide and hadn’t won a game since March 10 – more than a week before the Wizards embarked on a grueling stretch of six of seven games away from Verizon Center.
“We had the ultimate Achilles’ heel – a sub .500 team on a losing streak, on the road – according to our MO this year,” Emeka Okafor said, shaking his head. “That’s a problem. And it showed.”
The Magic scored at their leisure in the first half, with the Wizards unable to provide any resistance for Tobias Harris, Maurice Harkless, Andrew Nicholson and E’Twaun Moore, who got to play more minutes after Jameer Nelson went down with an ankle injury.
“We came out a little flat and they took advantage of it,” forward Trevor Booker said. “I don’t know if we underestimated them or what, but they came out, got a lot of easy looks. A lot of open layups and dunks.”
After absorbing a vicious clothesline in the first quarter, John Wall scored a game-high 35 points and tried to lift the Wizards from their slow start. His infectious energy helped the team rally from a 16-point first half deficit to take a third quarter lead, but he began to fade late as he came up short on several jumpers in the final period. Then, the Wizards ran out of time.
“It doesn’t wear you out,” Wall said of the run. “It’s just that when we fought back, they were already a team that had enough confidence and felt like they come back and delete that. They made shots down the stretch when were missing.”
The slip-up in Orlando was more disconcerting because it accentuated the Wizards’ problems against the worst of the worst. Charlotte, Orlando, Cleveland and Detroit have the four worst records in the Eastern Conference, but the Wizards went a combined 3-12 against them this season. They also got swept by the Kings, who have the fourth-worst record in the Western Conference.
If they had managed to win half of those games, the Wizards (26-46) would have 33 wins and trail Milwaukee by 2½ games for the eighth spot with 10 games left on the schedule.
“And now you’re looking at a whole different scenario,” Coach Randy Wittman said.
Instead, the Wizards are looking at fifth straight lottery appearance add a head-scratching season in which they overcame a miserable 4-28 start and dealt with injuries to Wall, Nene and Bradley Beal but couldn’t make a serious postseason run because they struggled to beat bad teams.
The Wizards have gone 21-18 since Wall returned from a stress injury in his left knee on Jan. 12. When broken down, that record also reveals a disturbing trend for a team that continues to lack consistency and takes on different personalities based on quality of opponent and location.
With Wall in the lineup, the Wizards are 12-8 against teams with winning records, with impressive wins over Denver, Houston, New York, Brooklyn and the Los Angeles Clippers. But they are 9-10 against teams with losing records, with losses to Sacramento, Detroit, Toronto, Cleveland and Minnesota.
The Wizards are 15-4 at Verizon Center and 6-14 on the road. Their most recent stretch of games showcased the problem, as the Wizards went 3-4, with wins over the Los Angeles Lakers and Memphis, two Western Conference playoff contenders, and losses to Charlotte and Orlando, the teams with the two worst records in the league.
“We’ve been doing it all year,” said Price.