With 17.1 seconds left on the season, the Wizards trailed the Chicago Bulls by three points after Kirk Hinrich made a free throw and had one more shot to tie. But before he drew up the final play during the timeout, Coach Randy Wittman realized that he had just enough time to curse out Kevin Seraphin one last time.
What upset Wittman doesn’t really matter, since he never squandered an opportunity to chew out Seraphin, but it summed up the approach that Wittman and his team took throughout the season – and especially in the finale. The Wizards weren’t going to stop trying, or stop competing, and Wittman wasn’t going to stop coaching until the final buzzer sounded.
Sometimes, that led to a few surprises. Most of the time, however, the Wizards came up short – as they did on Wednesday at United Center, where John Wall ended a season of missed opportunities with an air ball three-pointer as time expired.
The Wizards lost, 95-92, but they managed to stay competitive despite having just nine healthy players.
They could’ve also been counted out when they trailed by 21 points in the first 10 minutes of the game, 11 points in the third quarter and seven points with roughly two minutes remaining.
“I know a lot of people didn’t give us a chance because we had so many people out,” said forward Trevor Booker. “We came out. We played hard, played with all our heart and had a chance at the end.”
Wizards owner Ted Leonsis was in town for a meeting with Groupon and decided to fit in the final game of the regular season into his schedule. Leonsis witnessed a game that sort of resembled the season: they dug an early hole, scrapped back, hit a rough patch, clawed back again, and finished with a whimper.
The three highest-paid players – Emeka Okafor, Nene and Trevor Ariza – were all on the bench, along with rookie guard Bradley Beal and Martell Webster, nursing injuries. Wittman started Wall, Booker, Seraphin, Garrett Temple and Cartier Martin, but that unit surrendered the first 10 points and trailed 27-7 before reinforcements were summoned.
“As you could see, with a lot of young guys we’re trying to develop, had a lot of wide-eyed, deer in the headlights at the start of the game,” Wittman said.
That changed A.J. Price replaced Temple, Jason Collins replaced Seraphin and Chris Singleton replaced Martin, who never returned. Price, Collins and Singleton would all play huge roles in leading the comeback efforts.
Price scored 15 of his game-high 24 points and added an assist to Jan Vesely during a 19-4 second-quarter run that brought the Wizards within one point.
“I think we did a great job of showing a lot of character and I’m all about character. We showed up,” Price said. “Getting down 21 early, last game of the season, not having anything to play for really. We continued to fight. We came back and we made it a game. We made them fight tooth and nail, for everything.”
Price credited Collins for setting the screens that got him open to score, but Collins was more valuable with his contributions defensively. Bulls center Nazr Mohammed, a 35-year-old, 15-year veteran, had his way inside against Seraphin in the first half. Mohammed personally outscored the Wizards, 9-7, in the first eight minutes. He rebounded a Luol Deng miss, then spun around Seraphin before dunking on Temple to the delight of the sellout crowd.
“That was inspiring,” said the 34-year-old Collins. “Any time you see an old veteran go off like that, part of me is like, ‘Go on. Show the young fella.’ But the other part is like, ‘Let me put the breaks to this.’ I’m very familiar with his game. For me, it’s tougher when I play against rookies and second year guys, but Nazr, I’ve been playing against him since college.”
Collins started in place of Seraphin at the beginning of the third quarter and helped limit Mohammed to just four points in the second half.
Singleton also saved some his best basketball of the season for the final two quarters, when he scored 11 of his 13 points. He attacked the basket and finished with authority, throwing down an emphatic dunk in the third period. He also made a long jumper and a three-pointer in the fourth period, forcing Bulls Coach Tom Thibodeau to stay with his main players down the stretch (which he probably would’ve done either way).
“I thought this was one of Chris’s better games, playing down the stretch,” Wittman said. “A.J. has kind of played that way. I never worry if A.J. is going to play with any heart or desire. He got hot. I don’t always anticipate that, but he was big for us getting back into it. No question about that … Jason is a player that doesn’t come up in the stat sheet. I thought he stabilized us when I went to him.”
The second unit also seemed to shake Wall out of an early funk, as he scored 20 of his 23 points in the final three quarters and even made a three-pointer that brought the Wizards within 94-90 with a minute remaining.
The Wizards finished the season 24-25 with Wall in the lineup, but that record was soured by a season-ending six-game losing streak with most of the main players out. And after the game, Wall was disappointed that the Wizards failed to claim that elusive 30th win and his last shot didn’t even draw iron.
“Last game of the season, we wanted the win. Needed overtime. So it was tough. I thought it was going to be good. Felt good,” Wall said of the last shot. “We gave ourselves a chance to win. That’s one thing coach always told us. He don’t care who’s playing; he want us to play hard.”
And that was the message Wittman wanted to convey with 17.1 seconds remaining, the message that resulted in the Wizards staying competitive – though not always winning – during another lottery-worthy campaign. But now, it’s over.
“I can’t fault them. I was proud of their effort. To have a shot with a lot of our guys down,” Wittman said.
“Playing with your heart, your mind. I’m not worried about the scoreboard. I’m worried about, are we going to come with the right mindset? The tables turned and we were able to get back into it…reminiscent of the whole year. Didn’t hold our heads down, didn’t give in.”