A season that began with a 5-1 start followed by a five-game losing skid is suddenly flowing in entirely different directions for the Washington Wizards. No longer streaky, the Wizards (8-9) have alternated thrilling wins, such as a 120-114 double-overtime victory at Detroit on Nov. 25, with ugly losses that have included a 100-82 defeat at Charlotte the following night.
That pattern has continued in the past six games, the latest being a 111-87 loss at Indiana Thursday night to a Pacers team that was playing without two starters and had several others arrive at Conseco Fieldhouse either just before or, in the case of forward Austin Croshere, during the game because of inclement weather.
If the Wizards' inconsistency continues, they will beat the Chicago Bulls (9-9) at MCI Center tonight in the first meeting between last season's first-round playoff combatants.
Reserve center and co-captain Etan Thomas, who pens poetry in his free time, was almost at a loss for words following Thursday's defeat in Indianapolis.
"It's hard to explain what we're going through right now," said Thomas, who played one of his strongest games Thursday night, scoring 10 points and grabbing four rebounds in 16 minutes. "I'm always going to take a positive approach. Obviously, we're good enough to win some of these games but then on nights like [Thursday], we break down on some things and that leads to a loss. We have to learn from our mistakes and apply those lessons to the next game."
Carrying anything over -- good or bad -- from one game to another has been a near impossibility for the Wizards.
Prior to Thursday's game, Wizards Coach Eddie Jordan stepped to the dry-erase board in his team's locker room and jotted down the question: "Why were you successful?" Below that line, he wrote Toronto, San Antonio and Detroit.
Toronto represented Washington's most recent win, a 119-111 overtime victory at MCI Center Tuesday night. San Antonio and Detroit were two of Washington's most impressive wins this season, the first a blowout victory at home over the defending champion, the second a true test of resolve on the road against last season's other finalist.
"We wanted to remind them why we've won some big games so far, against San Antonio and Detroit and the last game since it was so vivid and recent in our mind," Jordan said after Thursday's game. "When those people made runs at us, we stayed organized, we stayed disciplined. We fought harder defensively and we didn't try to do it on our own. I guess the message didn't register tonight."
The Wizards lost a 16-point first-half lead because they broke down defensively, repeatedly giving the Pacers open shots in transition, on pick-and-rolls or on simple drives to the basket. Offensively, Washington started rushing shots, often after only one pass. Many of the shots went up with no one in position to grab an offensive rebound.
During one stretch of the third quarter when Indiana's lead expanded from six to 12 points, Washington allowed three layups on one end and either missed a jump shot or turned over the ball on the other. In all, the Wizards missed their last 11 shots of the third quarter and found themselves down by 16 at the start of the fourth.
Most of Washington's nine losses have featured similar stretches.
"We have to give ourselves a chance to stay in these games. And that has to start with defense," said guard Antonio Daniels, who expressed his frustration over the team's defense during a heated third-quarter timeout Thursday night.
"We have to get stops. Forget about the offensive end. Shots are going to fall and shots aren't going to fall. That's the nature of the game. But we have to start playing some consistent defense if we want to string some wins together. Nobody in here is happy with winning a game, losing a game, hovering around .500 all season. Who wants to do that? That's where we can start being consistent. Defense."