Verizon Center might be the most welcoming environment for visiting teams that are going through turmoil, suffering with illness or injury, or having a hard time winning games. The Cleveland Cavaliers were dealing with all three of those calamities – for the second time this season – on Friday and left the arena with a 115-113 victory against a Wizards team that continues to punt seemingly winnable games at home.
The list of lousy teams that have come in and, as Marcin Gortat loves to say, “punked” the Wizards in their own building continues to get longer and more perplexing. Teams will have clunkers against bad teams every now and then, but the Wizards have been habitual slackers against supposedly inferior competition.
“How many times has it happened? Nine, 10, 11 times this year?” a flustered Coach Randy Wittman said afterward.
The Wizards are 18-9 against teams with records below .500, but six of those losses have been at home. That might not bode well for Washington as it prepares to host the Sacramento Kings, owners of the Western Conference’s second-worst record, on Sunday.
“It’s easy to get up against the good teams,” Martell Webster said. “Where we fold is these teams below .500 come in and we play down to the level. No disrespect, like I said, every team in this league is good, people are capable of scoring. But when teams are going through dysfunctional times, you’ve got to really jump on those teams early and get those games, and we’ve done horribly at that this year.”
Milwaukee has nine wins, but stole an overtime victory on Dec. 6 after the Wizards blew a five-point lead with 51 seconds left. Boston had lost 11 of 12 when it arrived in Washington on Jan. 22 without Rajon Rondo and Avery Bradley but still beat the Wizards in overtime after building a 19-point second-half lead. Philadelphia, which has the third-worst record in the NBA, won the Wizards’ home opener after overcoming a 14-point first half deficit. Detroit came to town last month one night after getting blown out by 21 points against lowly Utah at home and defeated the Wizards – then lost its next four games.
If the Wizards were simultaneously getting thumped by elite teams, it would be easier to accept, but they have handled themselves well against some of the league’s best. Of their six wins against teams above .500, four have come at Verizon Center. They started their current home stand with wins over Oklahoma City and Portland and built a 17-point lead over San Antonio on Wednesday before eventually losing in double overtime.
And they follow up those performances with a second loss this season to the 17-win Cavaliers.
Wittman “told us on the off day, the day we came in and got shots up and stuff, that this is the biggest game of the year to see where you’re going to stand as a team and see if you’re taking those right steps forward,” John Wall said Friday night after scoring 32 points with 10 assists. “We’re nowhere near close to taking those steps forward because we didn’t improve. You can’t take anything away from Cleveland, they played harder than us and they played a better game tonight. We didn’t come out and play with the same effort and intensity that we did those other three games.”
Cleveland has been a train wreck all season but is always at its drama-filled worst when coming Washington. The Cavaliers fired General Manager Chris Grant on Thursday, forcing him to take the fall for a team that had sunk into one of its worst funks in the post-LeBron James era. They had lost six in a row, including four straight by double-digits, and let the depleted Los Angeles Lakers stomp them with just five healthy players.
Luol Deng didn’t play on Friday because of the flu and Kyrie Irving played despite an illness and still had 23 points and 12 assists. Dion Waiters had scored a combined six points on 3-of-15 shooting in his previous two games but was hitting nearly everything he put up against the Wizards, as he scored a team-high 24. CJ Miles, who filled in for Deng, had 18 points against a Wizards defense that remains porous against the worst teams.
“You give a vulnerable team like that life and that’s what happens, you lose. We didn’t do our job. We didn’t come out aggressive,” Trevor Ariza said. ““We could have played a little tougher instead of lackadaisical. I felt like that’s how we played all game.”
Wittman said the Wizards thought they could take a night off and still win, but Ariza disputed his claim that the team wasn’t trying. “Personally, I don’t think that’s true. I don’t think anybody comes out here thinking we can just show up,” Ariza said. “But again, he’s our coach and sometimes coaches tend to think different things. All we’re going to do is stick together, work hard and try to make this one up.”
In the past month, Washington held the Thunder, Phoenix, Golden State and Portland well below their season averages but has surrendered triple digits to Utah, Detroit, Boston and Cleveland, which scored 67 points at halftime and had 91 points after three quarters.
“That was as bad a performance from a defensive standpoint and it had nothing to do with them making shots,” Wittman said. “It had a lot to do with how they got those shots. The effort they put in to defend them. When you try to do that, take that part of the game off, because you think you might be able to get away this game by doing that, not being able to exert both ends of the floor, this is what happens.”
It’s probably not a coincidence that the Wizards are 7-19 when they allow teams to score at least 100 points.
When the teams faced each other for the first time on Nov. 16, the Cavaliers had yet to win a road game in six tries. They were also dealing with some internal dissension, with rumors circulating about an altercation involving Waiters. But none of that appeared to be a problem as Irving scored a season-high 41 points to lead his team to a 103-96 overtime victory that the Wizards gift-wrapped to them after surrendering a 15-point first-half lead.
With a chance to put the game away, Bradley Beal slipped and lost the ball, which led to a turnover that allowed Irving to make the free throws that forced the extra frame. In three games against the Wizards this season, Irving has scored 92 points.
““It’s very high,” Wall said, when asked about his frustration level. “When you are playing against an Eastern Conference team, you have to take it seriously. You never know if they get on a hot streak, it could decide the season series, they get the eighth spot and we don’t. Those are things that you got to look at and get frustrated about…You want to set your own destiny and go out there and win those types of games.”