CHARLOTTE — Two different units, playing in two distinct quarters, sent the Washington Wizards down the two disparate paths of success and failure Monday night against the Charlotte Bobcats. Unfortunately for Washington, the group that was responsible for the latter was on the floor for the finish of yet another maddening loss that easily could have been a victory.
The Wizards were roughly seven minutes away punching their ticket into the Eastern Conference playoffs, seven minutes away from putting behind almost six years of misery in order to focus on seeding and entering the postseason in good form. But after Bradley Beal completed a rare four-point play to give his team a nine-point lead over the Bobcats in the fourth quarter, the Wizards collapsed under an avalanche of sloppy offensive execution and lackadaisical rebounding and lost, 100-94, at Time Warner Cable Arena.
“We were selfish. I don’t how much clearer it can be,” Coach Randy Wittman said after the Wizards (38-36) squandered a chance not only to clinch a postseason berth but gain separation from a team that is chasing them in the playoff race. “At this point of the year, that’s what I’m really disappointed about. You’re fighting for playoff positioning. You’re fighting to get into the playoffs, and you take shortcuts and don’t do the things you have to do to play winning basketball.”
Beal led the Wizards with 20 points and was the one link to the team’s contrasting styles of play. He was the only starter on the floor in the second quarter, when a group of aging and experienced backups put on a clinic of ball movement and defensive tenacity. With backup point guard Andre Miller running the team and handing out eight assists in the period, Drew Gooden playing solid defense on Bobcats center Al Jefferson and Al Harrington hitting shots from all over the floor, the Wizards turned a 10-point deficit into a 16-point halftime lead with a 36-10 run that forced Wittman to keep four of his starters on the bench the entire period.
John Wall, Marcin Gortat, Trevor Ariza and Trevor Booker didn’t complain — they were too busy shooting up from their chairs to hoot, holler and wave towels. When the transfer was made at halftime, however, that group abandoned what had worked.
“It was a big difference,” Beal said. “One group was moving the ball; one wasn’t. One group was playing defense; the other one wasn’t. We just weren’t in sync.”
Beal’s four-point play put the Wizards up 90-81 with 6 minutes 59 seconds remaining, but they would only get two field goals the rest of the way as Charlotte closed the game on a chin-rattling, 19-4 run to move within two games of Washington for sixth place in the East with nine games remaining.
“That’s the terrible part. When you get closer to games that really count and you want to be a playoff team, you’ve got to find a way to win these games,” said Wall, who was limited to 10 points on 4-for-16 shooting and six assists. “You definitely don’t want to lose this game with them hot on our tail, but the basketball gods didn’t want us to win this one.”
Wall didn’t have a point or an assist in the fourth quarter when the Wizards were outscored 30-14 as Kemba Walker (21 points, 10 assists) and Jefferson (19 points, 11 rebounds) inspired a thrilling rally, combining for 17 points in the period. Washington shot 6 for 18 in the fourth quarter, and Gortat didn’t have a field goal attempt.
“I don’t know. I’m the big man setting screens and trying to get rebounds. If I knew the answer, I’d give it to you. But I don’t have it,” Gortat said when asked what happened. “We just didn’t play the right way.”
Jefferson left the game in the first half to receive seven stitches after getting raked in the forehead by Booker, but he saved the sweetest revenge for the finish, when he made a putback hook shot to give the Bobcats the lead for good at 93-92, then followed with a foul-line jumper. Needing a stop after another failed offensive set, the Wizards allowed the Bobcats to get three offensive rebounds, and Walker put the game away when drove down the lane for a layup to give his team a 97-92 lead.
“You give a team two to three looks one time down the floor, eventually they’re going to make one of those shots. We lost the game giving them second or third possessions,” said Gooden, who had 12 points and eight rebounds off the bench. “This is my 12th year. I’ve seen how it goes. You’re chasing one thing, and you think it’s going happen. All we can do is worry about the next game. The stars will align themselves.”
With the New York Knicks defeating the Utah Jazz, 92-83, on Monday night, the Wizards’ magic number to secure their first playoff spot since 2008 remains one. But the loss to Charlotte was especially damaging to Washington because the Bobcats now have a 2-1 lead in the season series, making their matchup next week even more critical as it relates to the tiebreaker.
“There is no excuse for us to lose that game, to be honest with you,” Beal said.