Verizon Center was nearly one-third empty when the Washington Wizards were introduced before Friday’s home opener. With smoke filling the arena, lights rotating and music blaring, the crowd had a tepid reception, especially when rookie Otto Porter and Brazilian big man Nene emerged from the tunnel in sleek suits rather than slick warmups.
Before the game, John Wall grabbed the microphone and appeared not to notice the empty blue seats when he called the fans the best in the NBA. If the Wizards plan to earn more enthusiastic support this season, it will have to come from their play rather than their incessant chatter about being a playoff team. And so far, the play hasn’t backed up the talk.
After an embarrassing 109-102 loss against the Philadelphia 76ers, the Wizards are in the same place they were a year ago — winless after two games — with a game Sunday against the two-time defending champion Miami Heat.
“We can’t just talk about it. We’ve got to be about it,” forward Trevor Booker said about the Wizards’ playoff aspirations. “Our first two games, we haven’t been about it.”
Coach Randy Wittman lambasted his team for failing to show a commitment to defense. A sullen Bradley Beal said the players were “lackadaisical” and stopped buying into what Wittman wants them to do. And even more disconcerting, Wall — who scored a team-high 26 points — grimaced in the locker room, rocking back and forth as he complained of back spasms.
Wittman said he noticed problems as the players headed to the court for the start of the second half. He told his assistant coaches, “I don’t like their demeanor coming out of the locker room. Everything you get is like, ‘We’re okay. No, we’re not okay.’ We’re 0-2. We’re not okay.
“Got to respect the game, your opponent,” Wittman said. “I got to figure out how to get these guys to play the right way for 48 minutes.”
Disappointed with his performance in the season opener against Detroit, Wall vowed to do a better job leading his team, and he came out inspired. Wall knocked down a three-pointer, sliced through the 76ers’ defense for a layup, made a breakaway dunk and another three-pointer and followed with a pullup jumper to give the Wizards an early 11-point lead.
Wall made his first seven shots, including an acrobatic layup that electrified the crowd, but he was limited to just three points after developing back spasms in the second half, when the Wizards were outscored 65-48. By the end of the fourth quarter, many of the fans had already left, leaving the rest to boo the team as it exited the floor. “It hurts badly right now,” Wall said, pressing his right hand against his back. “I'm just going to go home and get some rest. I'll be all right for Sunday.”
The Wizards lost by double-digits to Detroit on Wednesday, but they lost more than a game after Nene strained his left calf in the first quarter. Nene finished the game, and Wittman said he anticipated having his starting center against the 76ers. But when Nene decided he couldn’t go after warming up Friday, Wittman opted to start newly acquired center Marcin Gortat, who has been with the team only since Monday.
Gortat had 12 points and seven rebounds in his first start with the Wizards, but the team was unable to get Beal to break out of his early slump.
After missing several shots he normally makes against Detroit, Beal continued to struggle from the field. Wall fed him for two three-pointers in the first half, but the more he shot, the more painful the result — he missed 14 of 18 shots and finished with just 10 points. Beal has missed 26 of his first 36 shots on the season.
“I would blame myself because my teammates feed off my energy and I feel like I probably took myself out of the game way too much,” Beal said. “We went away from principles like we always do. We were caught up in other stuff in the game, not making shots, not getting the ball, just little petty stuff like that, and that’s what affects us on the other end. We didn’t get back at all on defense.”
The 76ers are projected to be among the worst teams in the NBA this season after a rebuilding effort over the summer. But Philadelphia pulled off a stunning upset of Miami two nights before, and Thaddeus Young, Evan Turner and Spencer Hawes — the only holdovers from Philadelphia’s last playoff team two years ago — wouldn’t allow their new, young teammates to roll over.
Young had a game-high 29 points, Turner had 23 and Hawes had 16 for the 76ers, who trailed by 12 midway through the third quarter and 85-78 after Martell Webster (13 points) drained a three-pointer with 8 minutes 50 seconds remaining.
Philadelphia pounded the Wizards inside, getting 74 points in the paint.
“I think we got comfortable,” Booker said. “We laid down. A lot of people counted that team out, said they’d only win 16 games. Obviously, they believe different, and they came out and showed us.”
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