After a long, wet, strange night, Washington Wizards Coach Randy Wittman found no solace in his team’s dazzling comeback. They had erased a 25-point deficit, and their only problem was doing it too quickly – they left enough time for the Rockets and James Harden to a turn five-point Wizards lead into a 114-107 kick in the gut.
But Wittman did not want to focus on how the Wizards almost salvaged a victory. He wanted to focus on why they found themselves in the position to need a comeback, and on the greater issue of why they have lost four straight at Verizon Center.
“Listen,” Wittman said. “If we come out like we do at home, nonchalant, take it for granted, no sense of urgency, shortcut everything – which is what we did the first two-and-a-half quarters – until we hold each other accountable of what’s going on on the floor and get it corrected, that starts with me. But it also starts in the locker room, having some leadership in there. We just played the game. We shortcut everything. When you do that, you get down 25.
“Now, we got [ticked] off at me, at each other. If that’s what it takes, that’s what it takes. We came back for about 17 minutes there and played as hard and with heart than we did any other point in that. But you can’t 17 minutes of an NBA game against a good team. That’s what we did.”
A reporter immediately followed up to Wittman’s rant with a question about Kevin Seraphin’s strong game. Wittman wasn’t having any of that.
“He gave us a big lift,” Wittman said. “But the main point is, at home here, we just have no – I don’t know what the term [is]. Sense of urgency of coming home and protecting home. And we don’t. We just go out and play like it’s an AAU game. Kevin came in and gave us a big lift. There’s no question he played well. One of his better games. But we’ve got to figure those other things out. There’s no excuse for the way we’re playing.”
When informed of Wittman’s AAU comment, Trevor Ariza was taken aback. “AAU ball?” he said. “Dang, coach.” But he did not disagree.
“I don’t know, but we do have to figure it out,” Ariza continued. “We come out in the third quarter being lackadaisical. If we want to win games, especially at home, we can’t do that. We have to play like it’s the last five minutes of the game. If we figure out how to do that, I think we’ll give ourselves a pretty good chance to win more games at home.”
John Wall, another Wizards leader, agreed with Wittman’s assessment, too.
“Some way on the road, we execute better,” Wall said. “We don’t shortcut ourselves. But at home we take shortcuts. We’re not protecting our home court like you should.”
The turning point for the comeback happened not on the court, but in a team huddle. Late in the third quarter, Ariza and Nene shouted at each other on the bench. Wittman tried to calm the situation, and Nene yelled back at Wittman, gesturing with his arm. Ariza then continued pleading with Nene. An assistant coach wandered over, readying to step between the players if needed.
And it was about at that time that the Wizards launched their 25-point comeback. Wittman liked it.
“Hey, if that’s what it takes, that’s what it takes,” Wittman said. “I want guys to help each other, correct other. That’s got to be done sometimes on the fly. That’s got to be sometimes in the locker room before a game. Are we taking the right approach before the game here? We’re coming out and not performing here at home. Yeah, there was an episode where guys got after each other. And you know what? It helped. It helped. It turned things around from an effort standpoint and not taking a shortcut and doing it the right way. That happens in every good team, where if you’re not doing your job or I’m not doing my job, it’s time for you to start doing your job. It’s being told by the coach, by a teammate, by a family member. And then you got to do it.”
Ariza would not reveal what started the verbal spat with Nene. “Just trying to win the basketball game,” he said. “That’s what it was about.” But he agreed with Wittman that it provided a spark.
“I think it’s good for your team when you have two players that want to win, that’s doing everything they can to win,” Ariza said. “Sometimes, you’re going to have disagreements. It’s about how you respond and how you build from there. I felt that we did a good job by coming out and playing harder for each other.
“We definitely started playing harder. I can say it was a changing moment for our team. Every day is not going to be great. You got to find ways to motivate yourself, motivate your team. Maybe that was something that helped us out.”