No matter how much the Washington Wizards have improved with John Wall in the lineup, no matter how many playoff-caliber opponents they have put int heir win column, they still have a difficult time capitalizing on situations most teams would consider favorable.
The pattern played out again Friday. The Wizards were on the road, against a wounded Orlando Magic that hobbled into Amway Center undermanned and having lost eight straight. And once again, the Wizards found a way to turn up their nose on a winnable game, appearing so uninterested in first half that they spotted the Magic two points when forward Trevor Booker fought for a rebound and knocked the ball into the wrong basket.
“It happens sometimes,” Booker said afterward with a laugh and a shrug, “but that’s how the night went.”
After a 97-92 loss to the Orlando Magic, Coach Randy Wittman didn’t feel like offering much praise for John Wall, who scored a game-high 35 points, or even Martell Webster, who returned after missing the previous two games with an abdominal strain to score 19 points.
“I don’t think anybody had a good performance. We lost,” Wittman said. “These are the games, if we’re going to get to that next stage of being a good team, you’ve got to win. We just go through the motions against teams like this. It cost us. I mean, how many games this year has it been? That’s what good teams do and we’re not a good team yet. Because we’re not doing that.”
The Wizards (26-45) squandered their only opportunity to win a season series against a Southeast Division opponent. They ended with a split against Orlando after already losing three games apiece to Charlotte and Atlanta and two more to Miami. They won their previous two games against the Magic, including a 120-91 shellacking on Jan. 14 in Wall’s second game after debuting with a stress injury in his left knee. That game was at the Verizon Center, where the Wizards play at a different level on both ends of the floor.
“When we’re on the road, we tend to struggle,” Wall said after the Wizards fell to 7-30 away from home. “We just have to find a way to become a better road team.”
Magic forward Tobias Harris, acquired near the trade deadline from Milwaukee in a deal involving J.J. Redick, led a misfit collection of scrappy no-names with a team-high 30 points. The Magic (19-54) had five players score in double figures and have now won six consecutive games against the Wizards at home.
The Wizards fell behind by 16 points in the first half, and their unwillingness to compete only fed the Magic’s confidence.
Unlike their previous loss in Oklahoma City, where they were down to just eight players, the Wizards close to full strength on Friday with the exception of Bradley Beal and Nene. In addition to regaining their own health, the Wizards would have appeared to benefit from Orlando’s own injury woes, which worsened when the Magic lost starting point guard Jameer Nelson after the first period with an ankle injury.
Webster decided that his strained abdomen felt well enough to play; A.J. Price ended a string of nine straight missed games with a sore right groin and Trevor Ariza (flu) played after missing the past three games.
“It’s mind over matter at that point. In the heat of the game, I tend not to think about it,” Webster said. “I’m thoroughly disappointed. First half, we had a mentality of, ‘This is an easy win.’ Usually when you have that mentality, you get upset.”
But even with most of the team back, the Wizards were again heavily reliant Wall, who had to carry most of the scoring burden and took a career-high 28 shots. Wall helped the Wizards enter the locker room trailing 58-46 at halftime when stole the ball from Magic point guard E’Twaun Moore, dribbled the length of the court and made a layup before the buzzer sounded – in just under 2.9 seconds.
“I didn’t want the game to get out of hand, so I tried to be aggressive in the right way,” said Wall, who added nine rebounds but only had two assists. “We can’t say we gave it away. They came out and hit us in the mouth first.”
Wall led the Wizards on a 13-0 third-quarter run that made the game close. But after making two more free throws to get the Wizards within 88-84, Wall tried to throw a pass into the right corner for Ariza but it was intercepted by Harris. Harris then dribbled up the court and made a layup despite Webster’s attempt to foul him. He then made both free throws to give the Magic a 91-84 lead.
“I’ve been saying it all year, that for whatever reason, we play to the level of our competition,” Price said. “Some cases it’s good, when we play the upper echelon teams in the NBA. Other cases it’s terrible, because we’ve been losing to teams that we have better records than, who are subpar to us. We’ve been doing it all year.”