Washington Wizards are at their worst against the NBA’s worst

March 30, 2013

With 10 games left in the season, the Washington Wizards have little left to play for but pride and the possibility of finishing with the franchise’s highest win total during its five-year run of lottery appearances.

The Wizards (26-46) need only one more win to accomplish that modest feat, but the final stretch could’ve been more meaningful had they avoided a futile run against the teams below them in the Eastern Conference standings.

After a deflating 97-92 loss to the Orlando Magic on Friday, the Wizards finished the regular season with a 3-12 record against Charlotte, Detroit, Cleveland and Orlando. Two more losses came against the Sacramento Kings, who have the fourth-worst record in the Western Conference.

The terrible performance against fellow NBA bottom feeders might have cost the Wizards postseason contention. The rest of the league has gone 252-97 (.722) against the Bobcats, Pistons, Cavaliers, Magic, and Kings. If the Wizards had managed to win just half of the 14 games they lost to those five teams, they would have 33 wins and trail the Milwaukee Bucks by 2½ games for the eighth and final playoff spot in the East.

“And now you’re looking at a whole different scenario,” a perturbed Coach Randy Wittman said after the loss in Orlando. “For whatever reason, I haven’t been able to figure out how to get our team to come out against teams” with losing records.

The Washington Post’s LaVar Arrington, Mike Wise, Liz Clarke, and Jonathan Forsythe discuss whether the Wizards’ John Wall deserves a max contract. (Post Sports Live)

A postseason run seemed unimaginable after the Wizards opened the season with 12 consecutive losses and 28 defeats in the first 32 games. Despite injuries that forced John Wall, Bradley Beal and Nene to miss considerable time, the Wizards will look back on several missed opportunities against the league’s dregs — losing to Cleveland without Kyrie Irving; blowing a five-point lead in the final three minutes in both Sacramento and Charlotte, and so on — as major reasons for coming up short.

Wall has helped lift the Wizards into respectability, leading them to a 21-18 record since returning from a stress injury in his left knee on Jan. 12. But the Wizards’ record with Wall also reveals a disturbing trend of inconsistency. Since Wall’s return, the Wizards are 12-8 against teams with winning records, including impressive victories over Denver (twice), Houston, New York, Chicago, Brooklyn and the Los Angeles Clippers. But they are 9-10 against teams with losing records, including losses to Minnesota and Toronto, their opponent on Sunday at Verizon Center.

While Wall was sidelined, the Wizards were 1-7 against Charlotte, Detroit, Cleveland and Orlando. With Wall, they claimed wins over the Magic and Bobcats but both victories came at home, where the former No. 1 overall pick has led them to a 15-4 record.

The Wizards are 6-14 on the road and their most recent, grueling stretch of six of seven games on the road showcased the phenomenon: They went 3-4, with wins over the Los Angeles Lakers and Memphis, two Western Conference playoff contenders, and losses to Charlotte and Orlando, the teams with the two worst records in the league.

Overall, the Wizards are 15-23 against teams with winning records and 11-23 against teams with losing records.

“We’ve been doing it all year,” said point guard A.J. Price, who returned for the Magic loss after missing the previous nine games with a sore right groin.

Friday’s loss highlighted the Wizards’ tendency to play down to the level of their opposition. Orlando was on an eight-game slide and hadn’t won since March 10. “We had the ultimate Achilles’ heel — a sub .500 team on a losing streak, on the road — according to our [modus operandi] this year,” Emeka Okafor said Friday, shaking his head. “That’s a problem. And it showed.”

The slip-up in Orlando was more disconcerting because the Wizards have a reputation for being a top defensive team, but the Magic scored at their leisure in the first half. The Wizards were unable to provide any resistance to relative unknowns Tobias Harris, Maurice Harkless, Andrew Nicholson and E’Twaun Moore, who got to play more minutes after starting guard Jameer Nelson went down with an ankle injury. The Magic led, 58-46, at halftime and shot 51.1 percent in the first two quarters.

“We came out a little flat and they took advantage of it,” Wizards forward Trevor Booker said. “I don’t know if we underestimated them or what, but they came out, got a lot of easy looks. A lot of open layups and dunks.”

After absorbing a vicious clothesline in the first quarter, John Wall scored a game-high 35 points and his infectious energy helped the team rally from a 16-point first-half deficit to take the lead in the third quarter. But he connected on just 11 of his career-high 28 shots and finished with just two assists.

“We need to play hard,” Wall said. “Our defense is what keys us and leads the way for us. When we at home, we come out and play defense from the tip.”

The Wizards will finish the season with five games at home and five on the road, but they should be encouraged that they don’t face another opponent that currently has an inferior record. Seven of their final 10 games are against teams that have already clinched playoff spots, which means the Wizards have a good opportunity to collect a few more wins before the season ends.

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