The Washington Wizards were one stop away from all but clinching the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference. One stop away from completing an improbable rally from a 20-point deficit. And one stop away from converting Nene’s return from a left knee injury and Trevor Ariza’s gutsy play with the flu into a victory.
But after expending so much energy to get into position to win, the Wizards broke down.
The Wizards, who clinched their first playoff spot in six years earlier this month, continued to stagger into the postseason — mainly because of their inability to get the one stop they needed. Washington allowed Charlotte Bobcats center Al Jefferson to get to the basket for a layup that forced overtime, then could muster only one point in the extra frame of a 94-88 loss that dropped them into seventh place.
The Bobcats and Wizards have the same record (40-38) with four games remaining, but Charlotte now holds the tiebreaker, putting the Wizards in danger of facing either the two-time defending champion Miami Heat or Indiana Pacers in the first round.
“Honestly, I don’t care about the standings,” Marcin Gortat said after scoring a game-high 27 points with 14 rebounds. “End of the day, we have to play. The way we play right now, we’re not going to beat anybody, including [last-place] Milwaukee. Seriously, it doesn’t matter who we play in the first round. If we’re going to play this, we’re not going to win games, bottom line.”
Gortat put the Wizards up 87-85 with 9.9 seconds remaining when he caught a pass from John Wall, made a nifty spin move to avoid Bobcats forward Josh McRoberts and dropped the ball into the hoop.
Fans at Verizon Center stood and applauded as Charlotte called a timeout. Trevor Booker even cracked a smile on the bench, rolling his arms and joking with Gortat that he could’ve been called for traveling. The Bobcats quickly would remove all smiles, striking back with a similar high pick-and-roll that resulted in Kemba Walker feeding Jefferson for the tying layup. Gortat was late to recover and held back to avoid picking up a foul that would have given Jefferson a chance at a three-point play.
Walker then smothered Wall and didn’t allow Wall to take a final shot in regulation.
Wall had his third career triple-double 14 points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists but he missed 12 of 18 shots. Two days earlier, Wall had completed a round-trip trek from Washington to Texas to watch Kentucky lose in the national title game, returning in time for Tuesday’s practice. Wall said he felt fine after the trip, but he appeared sluggish for much of the first half and didn’t score until midway through the second quarter.
“That hasn’t nothing to do with no basketball game,” Wall said of his trip. “I had two nights to get back to my bed and sleep. I practiced yesterday, had a good day, came here and had a game today. It’s not like I went the day before a game. If anybody has anything to say about that, that’s their opinion.”
Bradley Beal scored just eight points, going 4 for 15 from the floor. He missed all four of his attempts in overtime, when the Wizards couldn’t generate much offense, going 0 for 8. The Bobcats weren’t much better, with Walker’s three-pointer serving as the only basket of the extra frame. Walker finished with 17 points and 12 rebounds, and Jefferson had 20 points and 18 rebounds for the Bobcats, who have won five in a row.
Ariza went scoreless in 39 minutes, missing all six of his shots and coughing into his jersey a few times while he was on the floor. Ariza has been fighting an illness since Friday and missed the team photo and Monday’s practice while participating in a light workout a day earlier. Beal and Ariza combined to miss nine three-pointers as the Wizards shot 1 of 15 from long distance.
“I felt good enough to play, so I played,” Ariza said, pausing to cough again. “We didn’t come out with the intent to step on their throats. That’s what they came out to do to us, and they got the best of us — tonight and this year. I can’t say we weren’t prepared, because we were prepared. We knew what this game meant.”
The Wizards had funny way of showing it. Before the game, Bobcats guard Gerald Henderson said of the Wizards, “We’re going after them.” Through the first 18 minutes, the Wizards seemed willing to hand over the sixth seed without much resistance and trailed 50-30 after Henderson (13 points) made a three-pointer that elicited boos throughout the arena.
“We came out very flat. Like this game didn’t matter,” said Booker, who finished with 16 points and had five blocked shots, one short of his career high. “This is one of the games that we knew they were coming for us, but we came out like it was just another game.”
Nene appeared rusty early after missing the previous six weeks with a sprained ligament in his left knee, but he recovered to finish with 10 points in 17 minutes, with Coach Randy Wittman holding him to a minute restriction.
With another sloppy performance behind his team, Wall was still holding out hope for sixth place. “We got four games left that you got to win to keep yourself in range, and maybe they slip up and lose one or two,” Wall said of the Bobcats.