The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

At this point, every win or loss is a potential season-changer for the Wizards

Saturday’s loss to the Heat — a team Washington also met last week, pictured — was doubly painful for the Wizards: They blew an opportunity to move up in the standings, and dropped a game to a potential playoff foe. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

The Washington Wizards have noticed the musical chairs in the NBA’s Eastern Conference. The standings change almost nightly. No spot seems safe in the final month of the regular season.

Wizards Coach Scott Brooks went as far as describing this unpredictable time as “fun,” as his team remains in the thick of the fight for a higher seed and home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

“Fun is the right word, it is fun,” Brooks said before Saturday’s game, agreeing with a reporter’s assessment of the race. “Every night is a playoff atmosphere. You can go on a nice stretch and move yourself up in the standings or you can do the other way and knock yourself out in the standings, if you don’t come to play every night.”

After a Friday night win in New Orleans, the Wizards seemed ready to catapult into a third-place tie with the Cleveland Cavaliers but by Saturday, no one dared to speak of “fun” following a 129-102 loss to the Miami Heat.

“Just a lack of effort, lack of pride really more than anything,” Bradley Beal said about the porous defensive effort in the loss. “It’s not good because we’re running out of games. This would have put us in third place if we would’ve won.”

The Wizards (38-29) instead woke up on Sunday morning alone in fifth place. With only 15 games remaining, the dream of 50 wins has long passed but Washington could still do better than last season’s breakout team by grabbing the third slot. It’s still a realistic goal as Cleveland (38-27) has not taken flight following its roster revamp.

Games such as Saturday night seem regrettable as the Wizards are not seizing the opportunity.

“You have to be,” Beal said about playing greedy in hopes of landing a higher spot, “because there’s no guarantee we’re still going to be at four. We’re still neck and neck with five through eight. It’s not a situation where we can just sit here and say, ‘Oh okay, we can just coast into the playoffs.’ That’s not it. We’re not even playing our best basketball either. So that’s definitely not how we want to approach going into the playoffs.”

It’s been a while since the Wizards showed the worst of their defensive habits but against the Heat, the team reverted to the bad ol’ days by giving up 76 points in the paint.

“Game over from there,” Beal said. “I really wish I could tell you what it was.”

For context, in Dallas on Saturday night, the Memphis Grizzlies scored a total of 80 points. And yet, Miami nearly matched that number against Washington just with its aggression around the rim.

Although Brooks mostly played forwards Markieff Morris and Mike Scott at the five spot, the team lacked rim protection even when it tried the traditional route with a center. In only 17 minutes, Marcin Gortat produced the highest defensive rating of every player who stepped onto the floor.

After digesting the loss, Beal described the effort as both a failure of individual and team defense.

“I always say it starts with yourself,” Beal said. “You got to look at yourself and guard your man. If we just guard our own man, we won’t have to always worry about help. Granted, if you get beat, you have to be there as a teammate to help out but I think sometimes we rely on our help versus just sticking up and guarding our man.”

Beal noted how the Wizards might have to face Miami again. The Heat is currently in seventh place but has one of the easiest schedules and could always move up. That makes losses like Saturday doubly disappointing for the Wizards — they not only whiffed on advancing in the standings now, but they also couldn’t stay on the court with a potential postseason foe.

“We have to get ready for the playoffs,” Otto Porter Jr. said. “Each game is a playoff team and we have to play like it. We have to have a sense of urgency whenever we come out and play.”

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