It took the Washington Wizards 1,489 days to see what it felt like have a .500 record once again. And it was nice. For three days, they were a fun bunch. They traded jokes in the locker room, addressed those that doubted their ability to execute a turnaround, and fantasized about where they could finish in the mediocre Eastern Conference.
A week later, the Wizards are learning that prosperity — even the mundane kind — can be hard to maintain for a franchise so accustomed to the opposite.
The Wizards (9-11) have lost two more starters to injury and given away two very winnable games at home against a Milwaukee Bucks team that had the league’s worst record and a tired Denver Nuggets team on the tail end of a six-game road trip.
“You just get too excited about too many different things. You start loosening up a little bit and you start feeling good about yourself,” center Marcin Gortat said, shaking his head after the Wizards lost 75-74 on Monday to the Nuggets. “Teams like Milwaukee are going to come into your house and punk you on your own court? I just didn’t anticipate that. I knew we couldn’t get excited about winning. I knew we’ve got to get focused on everything we do. The NBA season is long. We still got an opportunity to win a lot of games. We tripped a few times, but it shows that we’ve got to become better.”
The Wizards’ past two losses were especially upsetting because they were in position to win both games. They rallied from a 15-point deficit Friday and took a five-point lead against the Bucks when John Wall made a pull-up jumper with 54.9 seconds remaining in regulation, but Washington didn’t convert another field goal for the remainder of the game in a 109-105 overtime loss.
Three days later against Denver, with Nene resting a sore right heel and Martell Webster nursing a sprained left ankle, the Wizards blew a 12-point second-half lead and failed to get a field goal for the final 4 minutes. After Nuggets forward Kenneth Faried dunked to give his team the lead for good, the Wizards had two turnovers and missed three shots with a chance to go ahead.
“We had two games that we should’ve won,” Trevor Booker said. “But we just got to keep working. We can’t hang our heads. Hopefully, we’ll get the next one.”
The Wizards would hope to have Webster and Nene for their next two games against Atlanta and the Los Angeles Clippers on Friday and Saturday, respectively. They have yet to win a game without Nene this season.
Regardless of which players are on the floor, the team’s inability to close out opponents is a concern. In four of their 11 losses, the Wizards have blown double-digit leads. They lost to Philadelphia in the home opener after leading by 14 in the third quarter, to Oklahoma City after leading by 12 points in the fourth quarter and to Cleveland after leading by 15 late in the second period. Washington led 56-48 when Wall made a pull-up jumper with 5:48 left in the third quarter against Denver, but the lead was only two points at the start of the fourth quarter. The Wizards are now 3-3 in games decided by five points or fewer.
“Sometimes you’re going to win those close games and sometimes you’re going to lose,” Wall said. “You’ve just got to keep competing, keep fighting. We’re two games under .500, but you still got a good chance, still got a lot of season left.”
Wall was stripped on the final possession against Denver but also missed a layup and a jumper down the stretch. He took a questionable jumper with the Wizards holding a three-point lead against Milwaukee, then was beat on the tying three-pointer that forced overtime. He also missed a potential winning shot against Oklahoma City. After the Nuggets loss, Wall tweeted, “I gotta do better at end of games and make big plays....#wizplayoffs !!”
In the past two games, Wall also found both Chris Singleton and Trevor Ariza open in the right corner for potential game-winning three-pointers. “I just try to make the right play,” Wall said. “Some people may criticize me for not taking the game over, taking the last shot, or whatever it is, but I feel like whatever’s the right play, that’s the play I’m going to make. I feel like sometimes they started trapping me, and my right job is to get the ball to my teammates to make a play and I believe in them 110 percent. . . . I think we’re getting good shots, just they are not falling. Other teams are making those shots.”
Wall and Ariza have both logged heavy minutes the past two games — Wall has averaged 43 minutes and Ariza 42 — and Webster stated that he saw a “tired” team down the stretch against Milwaukee. Ariza wouldn’t blame the late-game mental lapses and mistakes on fatigue.
“This is our job. We love our job. If we have to play that many minutes, we’ve got to do what we’ve got to do. But we’ve got to find ways to be productive toward the end of the game, regardless if we’re tired or not,” Ariza said. “We’re in the same place. We can’t get too low. Can’t get too high. It’s a long season. Still early. [The losses] do hurt but we take those as learning experiences and move on. These things won’t help us but to get better in the long run.”