The easy part was getting up for some of the best teams in the Western Conference. The hard part, it seems for the Washington Wizards, is maintaining the same focus and intensity against some of the dregs of the NBA. With a weakened Cavaliers team in town, the Wizards didn’t simply play down to the level of the competition; they propped up Cleveland by surrendering open looks and second chances, by being a step slow to rotate and react.
Their indifferent defense had consequences as the Wizards left the Verizon Center floor to the sound of fans announcing their displeasure with boos following a lackluster effort in a 115-113 loss.
“I feel like this is the worst loss for us this season,” John Wall said after the Wizards (24-25) fell below .500 for the 12th time. “The way we played the last three games, come back and have a chance to get over .500 and then you just fall right back down.”
Afterward, Coach Randy Wittman pressed his fingers against his forehead, adjusted the frames of glasses and took a sip of the bottled water on the dais as he glared at the box score. Wittman then cracked an uncomfortable grin before explaining his team’s disturbing trend of letting down its guard and showing little intensity against an opponent that is looking up at them in the standings.
“Lack of desire,” Wittman said. “We just think sometimes we can just show up. Maybe tonight will be a little easier, I won’t have to exert as much energy. . . . We’re not a very good team. Good teams don’t do that, over and over and over and over again. We can get all caught up in .500, and like I told you guys what that meant — nothing — and think that you’ve arrived. But good teams do not lose basketball games like this, nine, 10, 11 times. And that’s what we’re doing.”
All of the positivity generated from the Wizards getting over .500 for the first time in more than four years hasn’t completely vanished, but the momentum has been subdued by back-to-back losses, including a double-overtime defeat against shorthanded San Antonio on Wednesday. In the past four weeks, the Wizards (24-25) have defeated Miami, Oklahoma City and Portland in their building, but they have also lost to a depleted Boston, Detroit and now Cleveland, which was a hot mess upon arrival.
The Cavaliers (17-33) had lost their previous six games, including the past four by double digits. They fired General Manager Chris Grant a day earlier after the team lost to a Los Angeles Lakers team that only had five healthy players, including one who had committed six fouls.
Wall scored a game-high 32 points with 10 assists and the Wizards had five players score in double figures, but offense wasn’t the problem. Cleveland all-star point guard Kyrie Irving had 23 points and 12 assists as the Cavaliers improved to 2-1 against the Wizards, with both wins coming at Verizon Center.
Cleveland backup guard Dion Waiters scored a team-high 24 points and the Cavaliers’ reserves outscored the Wizards’ second unit, 58-26. Luol Deng, whom Cleveland acquired from the Bulls last month, missed the game with an illness, but his fill-in, C.J. Miles more than compensated for his absence by scoring 18 points.
The Cavaliers had their way offensively, taking advantage of every defensive breakdown and dominating Washington on the glass. Cleveland outrebounded the Wizards, 45-34, and shot 59 percent through the first three quarters.
Asked if he agreed with Wittman’s assessment that the Wizards are not a good team, center Marcin Gortat said: “Of course we’re not. How is it possible you can beat the two top teams from the West and then the East is coming in and kicking our [butt] on the court? It’s not fun. It’s not fun at all. We have a lot of fans coming in, pay for the tickets to watch good basketball on a high level and they expect us to win games like that, and we’re losing.”
The Cavaliers led 101-87 early in the fourth quarter, before the Wizards staged a ferocious but futile rally to get within two points with 2.9 seconds remaining when Martell Webster (18 points) made his sixth three-pointer. Jarrett Jack missed two free throws to give the Wizards a chance to win, but Nene’s desperate three-pointer as time expired was not close.
“We wait until the last four minutes to fly around and play defense. The last four minutes of the game. And everybody says, ‘You gave a great effort coming down the stretch.’ No we didn’t,” Wittman said. “For 44 minutes, we didn’t do that. And that’s what’s disappointing.”
A day after being named to the three-point contest next weekend at the All-Star Game in New Orleans, Bradley Beal shot poorly for the third time in four games. He scored just nine points on 4-for-15 shooting and couldn’t get much to go his way all night.
In the fourth quarter, when the Wizards were making a run to get back into the game, Beal was out alone for a fast break, but as he went up for a seemingly easy layup, the ball slipped from his hands and soared over the rim and off the backboard. Beal looked around for a foul call, thinking that Irving had clipped him, but he never heard a whistle.
“I was going so fast, I couldn’t even remember. He bumped me a little bit, slapped by arm a bit, but I still got to make that layup,” Beal said. “It was one of those moments in the game where if I miss that, I know something is wrong.”
Beal had no explanation for yet another letdown against a lesser team at home, where the Wizards are now 12-13. “This happened like nine games now. those games we gave away, we could be a 30-win team now if we didn’t let some of those games go,” Beal said.