The Wizards are coming for that No. 9 spot. Washington hasn’t been mathematically eliminated from the playoffs and holds a tiebreaker over the Milwaukee Bucks, who currently hold the eighth and final playoff position in the Eastern Conference. But any postseason chances would require the Wizards (27-46) to win their last nine games and for the Bucks to lose their final nine.
Since that is highly unlikely to occur, Coach Randy Wittman has given his players a target and challenged them to play like their fifth consecutive lottery season still has a purpose. With the Wizards trailing the Philadelphia 76ers by just three games, they still have a chance, albeit a slight one, to finish in ninth place.
“That’s kind of what we’ve talked the last three weeks. There’s different ways to keep motivation. I want these guys to think that this is still a playoff race,” Wittman said as the Wizards prepare to host the Chicago Bulls on Tuesday at Verizon Center. “I think if we could to that, it would be a hell of an accomplishment for these guys, to be 4-28 with all the injuries we had to miss the playoffs by one spot.”
Wizards owner Ted Leonsis tempered expectations for the team after John Wall’s stress injury was announced before training camp, but he said finishing with the second or third worst record again would be “unacceptable.” In the past four seasons, the Wizards haven’t finished better than 13th in the Eastern Conference. But they have already claimed the most victories since making their last playoff appearance in 2007-08.
More Ping Pong balls won’t amount to much with an upcoming NBA draft devoid of any projected superstars.
“We want to finish this season strong, try and get 32, 33 wins,” Martell Webster said. “It’s possible…We’re playing for something that’s bigger than just nine games left. Fighting for that ninth spot because for us, that’s fuel for next year. I’m just smiling because this game is a gift. It’s not going to last very long. So I’m going to make the most of it.”
April has typically been the month for meaningless rallies for the Wizards. They finished last season winning six in a row and eight of their final 10, including two wins over eventual NBA champion Miami (which was resting LeBron James and Chris Bosh had Dwyane Wade for just one quarter). Two seasons ago, the Wizards went 5-3 in the final month, including a 22-point drubbing of eventual conference semifinalist, Atlanta. Three seasons ago, they went 4-4 in April, including a road win against eventual Eastern Conference champion Boston, which had all of its healthy starters.
The Wizards have gone 22-18 (.568) since John Wall made his debut after missing the first 33 games and that record would rank fifth among Eastern Conference teams, behind Miami, Indiana, New York and Brooklyn. Even with the improved play in recent weeks, Wall said the Wizards should be even better.
“To start off 5-28 and be where we are right now is great, but we feel like we could easily have 32 to 34 wins if we hadn’t lost those games to Detroit four times, Minnesota, Orlando or Sacramento. Those are the kind of games you wish you had, to say that you are in the playoff race.”
The loss to Orlando was especially disconcerting, because it dropped the Wizards’ record to 3-12 against teams that rank below them in the Eastern Conference standings. After playing Toronto (27-47) on Wednesday, the Wizards won’t face another opponent with an inferior record.
“Came into that Orlando game thinking we had the game won and ended up embarrassing ourselves,” Webster said. “I don’t really think it was them beating us as much as it was us shooting ourselves in the foot. To get the ninth the spot is going to take beating those teams. It left a sour taste in our mouth. We’ve got to keep going.”
The Wizards will play Philadelphia (30-43) in their home final on April 12, in a game that could determine the ninth seed, with the season series split at one game apiece.
Playoff teams usually rest their star players late in the season, but the Wizards face opponents that are still trying to lock up postseason positions. The Bulls are only 1½ games behind Brooklyn for the fourth seed. Indiana is in a tight battle with New York for the second seed. Boston hasn’t clinched a playoff spot yet but still has to fend off eighth-seeded Milwaukee to avoid facing Miami in the first round. The Heat comes to town on April 10 and could’ve already wrapped up the top overall seed with San Antonio hitting a recent slump.
But Wittman doesn’t want his players focused on anything more than themselves, and their modest goal to be the best of the Eastern Conference’s worst.
“That’s what I want them to focus on,” Wittman said. “It’s going to be tough, we’re down three with nine to play. But you might face that next year, whether it’s to get into the playoffs, to secure home court, secure the sixth spot. We’re going to face that at some point. I want them to look at the games in that manner. I’ve got to analyze who can do it and who can’t, too. This is important for us. That’s how the end of season games become when you’re in the thick of things.”