The offense was dragging and desperately in need of some direction when Coach Randy Wittman called on his most tested veterans to serve up a clinic in ball movement, hustle and huge shots. With Andre Miller teaching another course in Point Guard 101, Al Harrington delivering a flashback offensive performance and Drew Gooden dashing all over the court with abandon, the Wizards went into the locker room with a seemingly comfortable, double-digit halftime lead.
When the Wizards returned for the third quarter and Wittman put the game back in the hands of his starters, the offense flew off the rails once again and Washington crashed into a humiliating loss.
Of course, this was the scenario that played out during the Wizards’ a 95-92 loss to the Indiana Pacers in in Game 4 of Eastern Conference semifinals loss. But it was almost a repeat performance of what occurred in Charlotte on March 31, when the Wizards squandered a 16-point lead and wasted a solid turn-back-the-clock effort from its 30-something backups. At the time, it was the 11th regular season game in which Washington blew a double-digit lead; the second-largest blown lead of the season.
The Wizards appeared to have kidnapped that unfocused team, tied it up and buried it in the basement. Unfortunately, that version of the team escaped and resurfaced at the most inopportune time, on the biggest stage. In another miserable third-quarter performance, the Wizards allowed a 19-point lead get down to one and lifted the Pacers off the floor to set the stage for the most disappointing loss of the postseason.
“I don’t know if we ran out of gas or what, but we didn’t have the same confidence, swagger to try to increase the lead,” Gooden said.
Washington has lost the third quarter of every game this series against Indiana. But in Games 1 and 2 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, the Wizards were outscored by a combined 12 points. In Games 3 and 4 at Verizon Center, the Wizards were outscored by a combined 30.
“We’ve been trying to figure it out all season but it ain’t worked out. It’s tough, it’s frustrating. It’s a game that we felt like we let go away,” John Wall said. “To have a lead like that, you have to keep playing the same way. Even throughout the whole regular season, throughout these playoffs, we haven’t had a great third quarter. And with that team, when they get their confidence, they start making shots to get back into a rhythm.”
Nene made a driving layup on Sunday to put the Wizards ahead, 57-38, to start the third period and added another to give his team a 14-point lead, glaring at the officials in search of a foul call. But the offense hit the skids from there, with the Pacers forcing Washington into terrible passes and even more questionable shots.
Indiana closed out the third period on a 15-2 run, getting all of its production from its all-star tandem of Hibbert and George. Hibbert had been relatively quiet in the first half, scoring just two points with three of his shot attempts rejected. But the Pacers repeatedly fed him and let him go to work on struggling center Marcin Gortat.
Hibbert scored seven straight points, then George hit a three-pointer. Hibbert made another layup and Paul answered a Gooden jumper with a three-pointer that sent his team into the fourth quarter trailing by just one point.
The Pacers outscored the Wizards, 33-17, in the period. Wall missed all three of his shot attempts and a free throw, went scoreless and had two turnovers. George was calm and composed and dropped four three-pointers while Hibbert had nine points, seven rebounds and two blocked shots.
“We didn’t come out with any intensity in the third quarter from a defensive standpoint and we’ve been outscored every game in the four games in the third quarter by this team,” Wittman said. “We just didn’t have that same energy right when we come out. And we allowed them to get going. And then George got going. They make some tough shots. We got our intensity back, but you work the whole first half to build a 17-point lead and give it all away, all but one point away in the third quarter, it’s tough. Then it’s a dogfight down the stretch.”
At least they still had a chance to win after the breakdown. In Game 3, the Wizards trailed 34-33 at the break and got outscored, 26-12, during a meltdown that produced the lowest-scoring offensive showing in franchise history.
Washington had never lost a game in which it led by more than 17 points this season, until Sunday. And after a terrible second half at home, the Wizards are now one game from elimination.
“We got to figure out how to fix that,” Trevor Ariza said of the third-quarter woes. “That’s something that’s been biting us all year and we’re at the point where that has to stop.”
That point might have already passed.