SALT LAKE CITY – The frantic final push to compensate for mostly lethargic play once again proved futile for the Wizards during Saturday’s 104-101 loss to the Utah Jazz. John Wall’s half-court heave as time expired was just inches from forcing overtime and would’ve completed an incredible rally from a six-point deficit in the final minute.
But Coach Randy Wittman has already informed his players of what happens when you “screw with the basketball gods.” And, Nene often echoes his coach by proclaiming that teams usually get what they deserve in the NBA.
So, the Wizards (21-22) can’t simply blame a “curse” for their past three losses all coming against teams with inferior records. The defeats certainly could have been a result of Washington being trapped in a .500 or below prison that has created a barrier more treacherous than an electric-shock fence with barbed wire.
Wittman also thinks that his team has gotten caught up in playing a record rather than an actual opponent. The Wizards have had five chances since the season opener to go above .500 for the first time since Oct. 31, 2009. And they have only lost to a team with a winning record once, when Dallas (25-20) won an ugly game that reeked of a New Year’s hangover. Washington’s four opponents in the other losses have a combined record of 55-120.
“That’s our problem. This is a tough game. Can’t think that way. You’ve got to go out every night, thinking this is going to be the hardest game you’re ever going to play,” Wittman said. “In this league, it doesn’t matter. There’s NBA players on every team, so every night it’s a struggle. It’s hard to win games.” The Wizards are hardly in a position to feel overconfident – considering the misery of the past five seasons – but that could be an explanation as to why the effort has been lagging and urgency lacking against beleaguered foes.
In the past two weeks, the Wizards have had resounding wins against Miami and Chicago and deflating losses against Detroit, Boston and Utah. They also mixed in a win against lowly Philadelphia but that was a sloppy contest in which they got careless and nearly blew a 21-point fourth-quarter lead.
Eight of the Wizards’ 22 losses this season have come against teams that currently have losing records, including home defeats against the league-worst Milwaukee Bucks and the 76ers. They also have collected 16 wins against teams below .500 but have been unfocused against those opponents of late.
They trailed by 19 against the Celtics before losing in overtime on Wednesday, went out and won a tightly contested game against a playoff-contending Phoenix Suns team on the road on Friday and then got outplayed down the stretch the next night against an inexperienced Jazz team featuring several players still on their rookie deals.
“All the teams under .500 play good when you give them space, when you loosen up, playing lazy, they make shot, they get confidence and I think they got their confidence,” Nene said of the Jazz. “They played hard. We try to come back in the game, but it was late.”
The Wizards took a 13-point lead in the second quarter against Utah but ended up trailing before halftime. They entered the fourth quarter tied at 77 and then let the Jazz score the first eight points, creating an uphill climb for the rest of a game in which they lacked legs on the second leg of back-to-back games.
“We take nothing away from these teams, because we all go out and compete and we respect every NBA team, but we feel like we lost eight or nine games that we should’ve won,” John Wall said afterward. “I think we was [fired up to play the Jazz]. We got up 13. We didn’t make enough plays.”
The Jazz (15-29) started the season 1-14 but has improved since rookie point guard Trey Burke made his debut after recovering from an injury. Utah was also coming off two double-digit losses to the Minnesota Timberwolves.
“They’re not a bad team. They’re a really good team,” Trevor Ariza said. “Sometimes, we tend to look at a team’s records and think that that’s the type of team that they are. But in actuality, this is the NBA. Everybody can beat anybody on any given night. That’s never a factor in the way we played. We beat ourselves a lot by not playing our style of basketball for as close to 48 minutes as possible.”
With a daunting schedule approaching, against five teams that are sitting comfortably in the Western Conference playoff picture, the Wizards could find themselves smarting over several wasted opportunities to not only get over .500 but also to separate themselves in an ever tightening Western Conference race.
“Those are frustrating, but we got to quit thinking about that. We got to focus on winning the game and not so much getting over the hump,” Bradley Beal said of the Wizards efforts to get a winning record. “Of course we want to do that, but we need to focus on what it takes to win and we’ve got to have that heart and passion each night to be able to do so.”