Jason Reid
Jason Reid
Columnist

Jason Reid: If the Washington Wizards want playoff relevance, they need to play like it

Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post - After a splendid first half in which Washington led by 10 points at halftime, Philadelphia stormed back with a huge second half. The 76ers outscored the Wizards 65-48 over the final 24 minutes.

The Washington Wizards want their fans to believe this season will be different than the past five, which ended in the NBA draft lottery. They need to deliver the playoff berth that owner Ted Leonsis expects. But after two games, they look like the same old Wizards.

A team that supposedly is done rebuilding shouldn’t have played so poorly down the stretch Friday night in losing its home opener, 109-102, to the Philadelphia 76ers. The Wizards were outscored by 17 in the second half by a team that’s starting over with a new head coach and a rookie point guard.

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Two nights after being outplayed by the Detroit Pistons in a lid-lifting road loss, the Wizards squandered a 12-point lead in the third quarter at Verizon Center. Again, the Wizards watched as an opponent made decisive plays to close out a victory. They wilted when it was time to make a stand. Although we’re used to the Wizards disappearing at the most inopportune moments, they’re already in midseason form. Coach Randy Wittman has seen it all more times than he cares to recall.

“I’ve got to figure out how to get these guys to play the right way for 48 minutes,” Wittman said.

By putting on a must-see show Friday at Verizon, the Wizards could have taken a good first step toward repairing their image. They wasted an opportunity to get things started the right way.

Verizon hasn’t been an NBA hot spot since Gilbert Arenas was an all-star. Beginning in the 2004-05 season, the former high-scoring guard led a group that earned four consecutive postseason berths and had the District abuzz about its entertaining style of play.

Although those Wizards never were title contenders, they were interesting, competitive and carved out a nice niche. Teams truly headed in the right direction have to accomplish at least that much. Last season, the Golden State Warriors did.

The Warriors were one of the league’s longtime bottom-rung teams. When a franchise qualifies for the playoffs only twice in 20 seasons, reaching the NBA Finals shouldn’t be the first goal on its list.

But during the 2012-13 season, the Warriors gave their fans something good to see. The league’s best young back court was a real attention-getter.

Sharpshooters Steph Curry and Klay Thompson racked up three-pointers while leading the charge to the team’s first postseason appearance since the 2006-07 season. Quickly, Oakland’s Oracle Arena became a tough spot for visiting teams to play – the Warriors were 15 games over .500 at home – and a fun place for long-suffering Bay Area basketball fans. The party kept rolling in the playoffs.

Curry’s hot shooting was too much for the Denver Nuggets in an opening-round upset. The Warriors’ run ended against the San Antonio Spurs in the conference semifinals. They lacked the experience to compete with one of the league’s most successful playoff teams. In going as far as they did, however, the Warriors got what they needed most: fans believed in them again.

The Warriors changed the perception of their franchise. That’s what the Wizards are striving to do.

Leonsis opened his wallet in the offseason to upgrade the roster, which, at least on paper, appears capable of ending the playoff drought. President Ernie Grunfeld cleaned out the knuckleheads, acknowledging the Wizards had to get better off the court before they could improve on it. Players have worked hard and said all the right things. Now, they have to prove the show is better.

The Wizards struck out on their first attempt. The Warriors took off because Curry did. Teams only go as far as their stars take them. Curry proved he is one of the game’s rising superstars. Despite recently receiving a maximum contract extension, John Wall still has to prove he’s capable of leading the Wizards where they hope to go.

For a half against the 76ers, Wall was the take-charge guy the Wizards need him to be. He seemed determined to dominate and did from the start.

Wall schooled 76ers rookie point guard Michael Carter-Williams while scoring 23 points and directing the Wizards to a 10-point halftime lead. Wall was aggressive on offense, shot well and played to the crowd with every chest-thumping move he made.

For the Wizards, it was good stuff. Unfortunately for them, Wall turned into a bad closer: He missed five of six shots from the field and scored only three points in the Wizards’ disastrous second half.

Wizards officials are quick to point out that the team went 19-6 in its final 25 games with Wall in the lineup last season. That’s impressive. All that matters now, however, is that the Wizards have dropped their first two games and are staring at the prospect of another awful start.

Effectively, the Wizards’ 2012-13 was over after they began 0-12. In their next six games, the Wizards face the Miami Heat, these 76ers again, the Brooklyn Nets, the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Dallas Mavericks and the San Antonio Spurs. Good luck with that.

Wittman understands exactly what the Wizards are facing, which is why the Wizards needed to accomplish something for themselves and their fans in the first home game. “We’re just gonna come out [in the second half] . . . and think we’re gonna win the game,” Wittman said. “This has happened over and over.”

The Wizards have 80 games remaining. That’s a lot of time to get it figured out. But they have to get started.

For more by Jason Reid, visit washingtonpost.com/reid.

 
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