MEMPHIS — The Washington Wizards’ push toward respectability began with the rapid-fire push of the basketball, with John Wall at the controls, blowing past defenders with his speed and attracting so much attention that his teammates had ample space to hit wide-open three-pointers.
The Wizards (11-33) won three of their first four games after Wall returned from a knee injury, pushing the tempo and keeping defenses backpedaling with his speed and playmaking ability. They averaged 104.8 points, shot 49.5 percent from the field and 45.1 percent from the three-point line and had the look of a recharged and rejuvenated team with victories over playoff contenders in Atlanta and Denver.
But Wall’s dramatic influence has started to wane, with opponents focused on neutralizing him and the Wizards unable to hit the same shots that they had been dropping previously.
For instance, in the first quarter of the Wizards’ 92-88 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers on Wednesday, Nene grabbed a rebound and passed the ball out to Wall, who went on a one-man fast break, splitting through Jrue Holiday and Thaddeus Young, getting by Spencer Hawes and making a tough layup before any of them had a chance to react.
From there, 76ers Coach Doug Collins made sure that Wall would encounter more resistance – a wall of defenders – whenever the Wizards grabbed a rebound and threw the ball out ahead to one of the league’s fastest end-to-end players.
“Every time the shot went up,” Collins said, “we just kept screaming: ‘Get back! Get back!’ Because we knew he was going to run that ball right up our backs.”
Near the end of the first half, Emeka Okafor blocked a shot by Evan Turner and tapped the ball ahead to Wall. But the 76ers were prepared, as Turner and Royal Ivey double-teamed him and a trailing Lavoy Allen forced him into missing an off-balanced layup. In the second half, Philadelphia contained Wall, holding him to just two points on 1-of-8 shooting and four turnovers.
The Wizards have only won three of their past seven games and have lost consecutive games for the first time since Wall suited back up. In the past seven games, the Wizards are shooting 44.7 percent from the floor, 37.6 percent from long distance and averaging just 93 points.
And the numbers are even more noticeable on the road, with the team failing to score 90 points in three of their past four games away from Verizon Center.
“That’s the way this league is. It’s all about adjustments,” forward Martell Webster said. “Teams are going to get a whiff of your game plan and they’re going to try to do everything they can to deter you. Ours right now is, we’ve got a lightning quick point guard that likes to run. Now teams are understanding we like to run, but that’s not going to keep us from doing it.”
The next adjustment will have to be made by the Wizards, who are 6-5 with Wall but didn’t practice on Thursday, taking a detour from a workout at FedEx Center to visit kids battling cancer and other ailments at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
The Wizards’ offensive woes of late have also coincided with an injury to rookie Bradley Beal, who visited a specialist on Wednesday in New York and was told to rest for a few days, beginning with the Philadelphia game, because of a sprained right wrist.
“He’s day-to-day. We’ll have to see how it progresses,” Coach Randy Wittman said of Beal.
Beal, who had been struggling since a hard fall in Denver on Jan. 18, will likely miss the next two road games against Memphis on Friday and San Antonio on Saturday. He averaged just 8.8 points while shooting 35.7 percent from the floor (20 of 56) and 30 percent (6 of 20) from beyond the three-point line since the injury.
“I’m a tough kid. I feel as though it has to be broke in order for me not to play,” Beal said this week. “At the same time, I want a long career in this league and I have to take care of my body and I have to do what’s best for myself and my team. And I feel if I can’t make shots for my team then there is no purpose for me being on the floor . . . I have to take time off. It’s hard to do that, but I have to live with it.”
Wittman went with his 16th different starting lineup against the 76ers, inserting Garrett Temple at shooting guard so that he wouldn’t disrupt the rotation that has been working since Wall returned after missing the first three months of the season with a stress injury in his left knee.
Before Wall made his season debut, Wittman said the Wizards had such a small margin for error because the team’s offense was predicated mostly on five-on-five, half-court execution with few easy baskets created in the open court. “We still got to try to get our transition buckets,” Temple said. “Teams are going to try to take transition away from us, but we have to execute in the halfcourt now.”