AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — If Detroit Pistons center Ben Wallace’s free throw percentage were a batting average, it would still make him a marginal hitter. So, with the Washington Wizards desperately seeking any means to rally from a 20-point fourth-quarter deficit on Thursday night, Coach Randy Wittman asked his players to intentionally foul the notoriously terrible free throw shooter, hoping that it would yield the same result as a turnover.
The strategy backfired hilariously, and as Wallace kept knocking down free throws with his unorthodox form, he angrily stared down the Wizards’ bench. Wittman could only chuckle uncomfortably. Because when a man who entered the final period shooting 26 percent from the foul line connected on 5 of 6 in the final 2 minutes 18 seconds, the Wizards had to know they weren’t leaving the Palace of Auburn Hills with a win.
“It ain’t your night if he goes 5 for 6,” John Wall said of Wallace after the Wizards lost, 99-94. “Amazing. If he misses those, we might have a tie game, going into overtime — or a chance to try to win it in regulation.”
The Wizards didn’t get either, as they suffered their fourth consecutive loss with regular starters Nene and Trevor Booker still out with left plantar fasciitis. At this point, with the roster depleted by injury and the finish line to another forgettable season well within sight, the Wizards just needed to be in a competitive game and Wall needed to know what it felt like to be on top of his game again.
In one of the few road arenas where they have had some success this season — they beat the Pistons in this building by 21 points on March 12 — the Wizards played uphill all night and trailed, 86-66, when Rodney Stuckey converted a three-point play with 9:19 left in the game.
But instead of giving the Pistons an easy victory, the Wizards fought back, even after center Kevin Seraphin fouled out. They rallied with a combined four three-pointers from Roger Mason Jr. (11 points) and Cartier Martin, but their plan to hack Wallace failed to pay off. “We dug ourselves a hole,” Wittman said, “but we fought back and tried to make a game of it at the end.”
Wall finished with 28 points and 10 assists and Seraphin had 15 points and nine rebounds but the Wizards (12-43) lost the season series to the Pistons, two games to one.
Wall had been in the midst of the worst slump of his career, entering Thursday averaging just 12.4 points and shooting 32.8 percent in his previous 10 games. Wittman encouraged Wall to simplify things and not put too much pressure on himself to force his way out of the funk.
The conversation and encouragement from teammates appeared to have an influence on Wall, who played with an aggressiveness that hasn’t been seen in a few weeks. He attacked the basket and looked to score more than he had in previous games. His shot was at times a little shaky, but he compensated by getting to the foul line. And though he took more shots, he also was a willing passer.
“It was good to get out of the slump,” said Wall, who tried to single-handedly rally the Wizards in the third period. He scored 10 points during a run that brought his team within 70-64, but the Pistons responded with a 16-2 burst.
Trailing 93-86, the Wizards started fouling Wallace, who made free throws to the delight of the home crowd and the amusement of the players on the Wizards’ bench.
Jordan Crawford was excited about being back home and invited his Twitter followers in the Detroit area to check out the game. But he got off to a rough start, air-balling a three-pointer to open the game. He missed his first six shots before making a long jumper to start the third period. In two games near his home town this season, Crawford shot 4 of 25 and scored just 13 points. He had an opportunity to bring the Wizards closer in the final seconds but came up well short on a three-pointer.
“It just didn’t fall,” Crawford said of his shot. “Today is the day it picked not to fall. Simple as that.”
Detroit (21-33) became the third consecutive Wizards’ opponent to shoot better than 50 percent from the floor. Former Georgetown star Greg Monroe led five Pistons in double figures with 18 points.
But the Wizards’ night was summed up better by a second-quarter sequence that began when the Pistons’ Jason Maxiell made a short jumper. Crawford tried to retaliate but missed a layup. Vesely grabbed a rebound and missed a layup. Seraphin grabbed the rebound and missed a short tip-in. After Pistons rookie guard Brandon Knight missed a three-pointer, Wall grabbed the rebound, sprinted up the court and missed a dunk.
They overcame their early struggles, but Crawford wasn’t seeking extra credit for competing. “It’s your job. That’s what you’re supposed to do,” Crawford said of playing hard. “You ain’t supposed to give up. But fighting and winning is two different things.”