The Eastern Conference playoff race, however, has gotten much tighter and a playoff spot is no longer the lock it seemed to be for much of the past two months.
“The next 30 games are going to be a battle all night, every game,” Coach Randy Wittman said. “There’s no games to waste now.”
The Wizards (25-27) are only percentage points ahead of Brooklyn for the sixth spot in the East. They have dropped four of their past five games, losing in double overtime to San Antonio and the other three to Cleveland, Memphis and Houston by a combined six points.
“Any time we start playing defense, you can see we can play with anybody,” John Wall said. “We’re two games under .500, but we can get some days off, get some rest and get on a streak. We got to find a way to win some games. It’s a tough battle going on in that Eastern Conference right now. We’ve got to find a way to get ahead.”
The Wizards have had numerous opportunities to be in a better position but have repeatedly let down their guard at home against teams with inferior records, losing to Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Boston, Detroit and Cleveland twice. Given those results, it might not be too comforting to know the Wizards have the easiest remaining schedule in the NBA for the rest of the season.
Washington only has nine more games against teams that had winning records entering Thursday. The Wizards return from the break with a tough back-to-back against playoff contenders Toronto and Atlanta, then play the next three games against teams with losing records in New Orleans, Cleveland and Orlando before another meeting with Toronto.
“It’s tough for us. The last five games, we won one game,” Wall said. “Those [other] four games, you definitely want to win. I feel like they were definitely winnable games, but the ball didn’t bounce our way.”
The Wizards certainly had some bad breaks in their past four losses. Nene nearly had a steal in the closing seconds of regulation against San Antonio, but Patty Mills tossed the loose ball to Tim Duncan for the jumper that forced overtime. With an opportunity to tie the score against Cleveland, Nene had an outlet pass knocked out of bounds that cut off two critical seconds, denying them enough time to take a shot. And even after the wild, Harden-fueled sequence in Houston, Kevin Seraphin’s jumper was an inch or two too long.
But a common theme in each defeat was that the Wizards endured lengthy droughts. They blew a 17-point lead against San Antonio, came back from 14 down in the fourth quarter against Cleveland, rallied from a 16-point deficit against the Grizzlies and overcame a 19-point hole in Houston to take a brief lead.
The loss to the Rockets stung hardest, considering it was the game they will carry into the break, but Ariza hopes it will lead to a sustained sense of urgency.
“I feel like that should motivate and give us all the energy we need to come into the second half strong,” said Ariza, who set a franchise record with 10 three-pointers in the loss to the Rockets. “The break always comes at a good time for everybody. We played a lot of games so far. It’s good to get away from the game, spend time with your family and just come back reenergized and ready to play.”
Most of the Wizards went home or on vacation, but Wall and Bradley Beal both have work to do during all-star weekend in New Orleans. Wall was named to his first all-star team and will try to become the first player in franchise history to win the slam dunk contest. Beal was invited to the Rising Star Challenge for the second year in a row and will attempt to become the organization’s first champion in the three-point shootout since Tim Legler in 1996.
But after the loss in Houston, Beal wasn’t ready to move on and focus on his weekend festivities. “This one definitely hurt the most. I’ll probably mourn this one a little bit, but at the end of the day, I’m a part of something big individually, and I have to be proud of that,” Beal said. “Hopefully, we can come back mentally prepared and ready to go.”
Before leaving for the flight back to Washington, Wittman summoned Wall for a brief meeting to let him know that his all-star appearance was well-earned and encouraged him to have fun and return focused and ready to end a six-year playoff drought.
“It’s a dream come true for my teammates and myself,” Wall said. “I couldn’t have done it without those guys. Try to just relax and enjoy myself for a couple of days and prepare myself to come back to play on Tuesday.”