With the playoffs set to begin in two weeks and seeding still unsettled, any defeat is costly at this time of the season for the Washington Wizards. Their 96-78 loss against the Chicago Bulls sliced their lead for sixth place in the Eastern Conference – with seventh place Charlotte coming to town on Wednesday for essentially a winner-takes-all bout.
Instead of lamenting on his team’s horrendous effort at home, with so much at stake and against a team that Washington could meet in the playoffs, Coach Randy Wittman viewed the whipping as a teachable moment: There is no more room for excuses about fatigue or injuries and if you don’t come ready to perform, embarrassment will surely follow.
“I think you can gain a lot from this. Sometimes you can gain some things from losing a game like this and that’s what I want our guys to do,” Wittman said. “This is a good thing we can point to. Whoever it is we play [in the playoffs], this is what it’s going to be for every game. Not just one game and the next game is going to be a little easier. The next game is going to be a little harder. Third game is going to be a little harder. They came in here, punched us and they won. But let’s learn from it.”
The Wizards (40-37) have five games remaining and are virtually eliminated from contention for home-court advantage in the first round. Toronto and Chicago are tied for third place at 45-32 and the Raptors already own the tiebreaker against the Wizards. Despite Saturday’s loss, Washington claimed the season series with the Bulls but would need the hottest team in the East – Chicago has won five straight – to lose every game the rest of the way to have any chance at fourth.
Brooklyn (42-34) now has a 2½-game lead for fifth place. The Nets will face the conference-leading Miami Heat on Tuesday but have an easy schedule to conclude the season. So, that leaves the Wizards in a fight with Charlotte for sixth, though Indiana’s late-season free fall makes the seventh seed – and a matchup with the Pacers – much less frightening than it was at the all-star break.
Regardless of the Wizards’ first-round opponent, they can’t afford to duplicate what occurred on Saturday at Verizon Center, where they rolled over from the opening tip, withered against a more physical team and never seriously put up a fight.
“They came out focused and they definitely hit us in the mouth from the start,” Marcin Gortat said of the Bulls.
The Bulls led 52-24 when John Wall looked up at the scoreboard and tried to get his team set for a run by closing the half by drawing a foul on a driving layup – but he missed the free throw.
“Just keep playing. You have to keep competing and give yourself a chance. You never know what can happen in this league,” Wall said he told himself.
The Wizards opened the third period on a 31-16 run to get within 70-59 on a Trevor Booker dunk with 2 minutes 11 seconds left in the period but then slid right back down. “That’s called digging yourself a hole that’s so deep, you crawl up halfway and still find yourself getting further and further down,” Drew Gooden said.
Bradley Beal said the Wizards couldn’t get any closer because “guys were dead tired” during the run, but he also agreed with Wittman that the team could turn that spanking into a positive. “It’s definitely a game we have to learn from. We’ll see how these next couple of games go, we might be facing them again so we got to have this game in the back of our head.”
The Bulls are built for the postseason because they play with an aggressive and tenacious defensive style and the Wizards will have to be prepared for more of the same from now until their first postseason appearance in six years comes to an end.
Wittman doesn’t believe that the Wizards lost their edge against Chicago should the teams meet up in the playoffs.
“We beat them twice, We know we can beat them. They were the better team [on Saturday]. There’s no question about that,” Wittman said of the Bulls. “This is a good thing we can point to. You save these games. It was not unlike the Indiana game [on March 28], but we matched the aggression. [Saturday] we didn’t. That’s what it boils down to, but you can use these games.”