John Wall, Wizards struggling in the fourth quarter


Wizards point guard John Wall said he “fell short of a leader” after a recent loss to Atlanta. (Evan Vucci/AP)
March 27, 2012

Either by coincidence or design, John Wall has had the ball in his hands with the game on the line in the Washington Wizards’ past three losses at Verizon Center — and he has run out of time, been too long or been too short.

Wall probably wouldn’t have been in position to disappoint down the stretch had the Wizards not been so averse to prosperity and squandered double-digit leads in second halves through careless or lethargic play.

But with the opportunity to spare his team some ignominious finishes, Wall dribbled around in circles with no urgency and made a floater in the lane after the final horn sounded in an 85-83 loss against Indiana; he hit the back of the rim on an errant three-point attempt as time expired in a 95-92 loss against Atlanta; and he front-rimmed a layup that could’ve given the Wizards a one-point lead in the closing seconds against Detroit.

“Sometimes you have to fall a little bit, before you get there and right now that’s happening with him, but he’ll learn from it,” Roger Mason Jr. said about Wall. “You’ve just got to be mentally strong in this league. This league isn’t for children. He’ll be fine. He’s tough-minded and it’s going to make it that much more sweet when it goes the other way.”

The late-game struggles have been a recent phenomenon, because just last month, Wall made a running one-hander to give the Wizards a one-point lead with 6.8 seconds left in Milwaukee — but the Bucks won a rebound tip on the next possession. He also made two layups in the final minute of regulation in the Wizards’ 111-108 overtime win over Toronto.

Wall also had a reputation for coming through in clutch situations as a rookie, when he was 2 for 4 taking shots that could either tie or give his team the lead in the final minute last season. He delivered a bank three-pointer from 27 feet with 57.7 seconds remaining to give the Wizards a surprising 85-83 win over the Boston Celtics last January, and had the go-ahead dunk to give his team a 107-105 victory against the Pistons in April.

Wall missed a potential game-winner before an overtime win against Sacramento and another three-pointer in an eventual loss to Oklahoma City. But he also led the Wizards to comebacks against Philadelphia by coercing Jrue Holiday into fouling him from 40 feet out and forcing overtime by making three free throws. After a spirited home debut last season, then-coach Flip Saunders said about Wall, “His thing, he’s got unbelievable will to win. He wants to take the last shot, he wants to take the big shot; he wants to make the play.”

That hasn’t changed, as Wall said he “fell short of a leader” after the loss to Atlanta and accepted the blame for the team’s failings in the fourth quarter on Monday against the Pistons. “I put a lot of pressure on me,” said Wall, the No. 1 overall pick of the 2010 draft. “When we lose these type of games, it’s me as a point guard and a leader to get the best sets we have and the best plays to the best players.”

Coach Randy Wittman refused to fault Wall, or any individual, for the Wizards’ fourth-quarter breakdowns. In the past three games at home, the Wizards have been outscored, 81-46, and outrebounded, 45-20, in the fourth quarter. Indiana, Atlanta and Detroit have also held an edge of 27-4 in second-chance points in the final period.

The Wizards have also shot a combined 31.9 percent (15 for 47) in the fourth quarter of their past three home losses, connecting on just five field goals in each game.

“It’s not one guy that’s going to deliver for us,” Wittman said. “It’s situational, who you’re playing. It’s not laid on one guy’s hands. I don’t want to put this on John’s hands. Now John’s a point guard and in that process of having a lead, understanding that the screws have got to be tightened down, you’ve got to execute things offensively and not just play, is his responsibility.”

The Wizards had struggled to work the ball inside to the recently acquired Nene late in losses to the Pacers and Hawks, but they made a concerted effort to make sure the Brazilian big man had touches in the final minute against the Pistons. Nene hit a go-ahead jump hook with 40 seconds left and a game-tying jump hook with 5.8 seconds remaining, after Wall’s missed layup. “I was cool with that, even though I wanted to make the shot,” Wall said. “I wish it would’ve went to overtime.”

But the Pistons had enough time for Rodney Stuckey to bury the game-winning jumper with 0.2 seconds left. The Wizards are now 4-5 in games decided by three points or less, including impressive, close wins against Western Conference playoff contenders Oklahoma City and the Los Angeles Lakers.

“Ever since the coaching change and the little trade, we’ve been in all the games. We’ve just got to finish out,” Wall said. “When we get a big lead, we kind of relax sometimes, like we’re a veteran team that can do that, relax and don’t run the plays that we was running when we had the lead. I’m learning how to be a better point guard down the stretch, calling the right sets. . . . I got to make the right play and not force it and get the ball to other guys, let other guys make the plays and that’s what you have to trust your teammates for.”

Wizards note:Cartier Martin is set to sign a 10-day contract before the game against the Pacers, according to a league source with knowledge of the situation.

Michael Lee is the national basketball writer for The Washington Post.
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