The Wizards team that returned to Verizon Center to play the Phoenix Suns on Wednesday hardly resembles the one that, just 11 days earlier, fed off the enthusiasm of a sellout crowd and rallied to defeat the Brooklyn Nets to claim sole possession of fifth place in the Eastern Conference. After a 99-93 loss to Phoenix – the team’s fourth defeat in the past five games – the Wizards (36-35) are sliding and struggling to find the reasons that they are now barely holding on to sixth place.
John Wall believes the Wizards are still hung over from a loss in Sacramento, in which he missed two free throws that could’ve won the game. Marcin Gortat supports veteran Al Harrington’s assessment from earlier this season that the team lacks mental toughness. Bradley Beal wonders if the team is simply starting to wear down.
Coach Randy Wittman is adamant that the Wizards’ problems exist primarily on the defensive end. Washington held the Suns below 100 points, but only after surrendering 75 points and trailing by 25 in the first 30 minutes of the game.
“No intensity,” Wittman said. “We’re just kind of here and run up and down the floor. We didn’t have any intensity. Got down 25, then said, ‘We better come play, this really could get ugly.’ You’ve got to do that from the start. Until we learn that, we’re going to have games like this.”
The Suns entered the game ranked fourth in the NBA in average three-point attempts, but the Wizards appeared to be indifferent or ill-prepared to guard the perimeter. With Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe consistently breaking down the defense and attracting attention, the Suns shooters found plenty of space and time to shoot threes. Phoenix connected on 11 of its first 18 attempts (61.1 percent) from long distance.
“They are a team who plays with two guys as point guards who space the court and just run pick and rolls until they are stopped. And they take turns. They switch point guards and put the other in the corner to find their shooters. They just got one big win. Then you have one point guard attacking with four shooters all around the perimeter. They made shots.”
Wittman believes that the Wizards played a role in helping the Suns make shots because of their overall malaise.
“When you play with no intensity, you’re not going to have an effort defensively, that’s going to show up. It’s just not – unless you’re hoping for the other team to miss some shots,” he said. “When you’re playing against a team like this, they’ve got eight guys that they can put on the floor that can really stroke the ball, if you play with no intensity…I’m surprised it wasn’t worse.”
The Wizards started to make a run when Wittman went with a smaller lineup that featured Wall, Beal, Andre Miller, Drew Gooden and Ariza. They closed the third quarter on a 19-4 run, with Wall accounting for 10 of those points.
“It’s just pride. It’s pride,” Wall said, explaining the rally.
This late in the season, with so much at stake, the Wizards can’t afford to wait for pride to kick in to get going. They eventually got within four points with eight minutes left, fell back down by 12 and then got within three with 90 seconds remaining. Washington made it interesting by outscoring the Suns 43-24 in the final 18 minutes.
“We’ve got to realize, 18 minutes of play that way, it’s hard to play that way,” Wittman said. “Are you willing to sacrifice and do that? We played about 18 minutes of high intensity. It made a big difference. We have to quit feeling sorry for ourselves, which we have a tendency to do. We’re big boys here and we have to buckle up and play the game like that.”
Beal hinted that fatigue could be creeping in for a team with several players who have logged heavy minutes this season: “I think our energy is drained a little bit.”
Wittman didn’t want to hear any complaints about being tired with the only 11 games remaining. The Wizards trail Brooklyn by 1½ games and only lead Charlotte by 1½ games. “That’s the worst thing. That’s an excuse,” he said. “Because you know what? Everybody has played 72 or 73 games. Everybody. We’re not the only ones and they’re fresh. No. everybody is in the same boat here. That’s the way it is. If you are, you’ve mentally got to fight through that. They’re not going to give us a couple of weeks off here to energize ourselves, if that’s the case and that shouldn’t be the case. That’s part of our job and that’s part of our business and you’ve got to deal with that part. Or you’re never going to be successful as a team or an individual in this league. If it gets to the last month of the season and you’re like, ‘I’m tired, I can’t perform the way I’m capable of,’ you better learn.”