It hasn’t mattered whether they have won or lost, whether Coach Randy Wittman has employed an eight-man rotation or emptied his bench, whether they are in tight game or a rout. The Washington Wizards have consistently managed to sleepwalk through the third quarter this month.
For reasons that they haven’t been able to explain, leaving the locker room after halftime and switching to the opposite basket has meant the Wizards will spend the next 12 minutes looking like a team that was assembled for a pickup game at the local gym.
The trend didn’t hurt the Wizards in two wins over Chicago and another over the two-time defending champion Miami Heat last week. But a lackadaisical third-quarter effort against the Detroit Pistons on Saturday led to Washington getting outscored 33-22, blowing a 10-point second-half lead and eventually losing, 104-98, in its latest attempt to get over .500 this season.
“Something about that third quarter, at times when we do not come out with that energy and it hurts us,” John Wall said as the Wizards get set to host the Philadelphia 76ers on Monday in a holiday matinee. “I don’t know. We try to get out there early to get extra shots up, and make sure we’re going through layup lines and try to stay warm, but it’s something we’ve got to figure out, of playing with the same energy that we started out with and the same kind of intensity.”
The Wizards (19-20) have been outscored in the third quarter in each of their past four games and in eight of 11 games in January. They have been most susceptible to the lapses at home, where they have lost the third period in six of their seven home games in 2014, which has contributed to a 2-5 record at Verizon Center.
Overall, they have been outscored 207-142 in the third period in their past seven home games. They have also failed to score at least 20 points four times.
The only time Washington produced more third-quarter points at home than its opponent was during a 114-107 loss to Houston, in which both teams were thrown off by indoor rain delays and the Rockets appeared to get bored after building a 25-point lead.
“We got to figure that out what . . . we are doing in the locker room. Maybe get some Red Bulls in there or something,” Wittman said while discussing the third-quarter malaise.
In Saturday’s loss, Trevor Ariza found Wall cutting to the hoop for a layup to give the Wizards a 60-50 lead with 9 minutes 35 seconds left in the third period, but the lead would be gone in less than four minutes.
Wittman called a timeout with the Pistons on an 11-2 surge, and the Wizards’ game operations crew decided it would be a good idea to get the crowd back into the game by introducing new Redskins Coach Jay Gruden, who was sitting along the baseline. Gruden stood up, and the crowd applauded for several seconds but quickly fell silent when Wall promptly threw the ball out of bounds and Pistons forward Josh Smith put his team ahead 63-62.
“You come in at halftime up eight, and within the first five minutes we were down one, we lose that lead and get the first timeout call. That’s tough,” Wittman said. “Somehow, again we have to get a better focus of coming out, especially when you have a lead like that. Just try to go out and get your first four or six points and all of a sudden you’re at 14, and as the opponent you’re thinking, ‘Wow,’ instead of it being the other way around. But we have to move on from this one.”
The Wizards have shown more discipline in the third quarter on the road, where they used impressive runs to take control of victories in Charlotte and New Orleans. Of late, they have simply tried to fend off runs and maintain leads, which have become harder to do as fewer players are getting the chance to contribute with Wittman relying almost exclusively on the eight players he trusts most.
In their 102-88 win in Chicago, the Wizards allowed the Bulls to cut a 13-point halftime deficit to four and needed a buzzer-beating three-pointer to enter the fourth quarter with a nine-point lead. They stomped the Heat, 114-97, but only after letting a 34-point lead get whittled to nine in a third period that saw them commit nine of their 12 turnovers and get outscored 29-17.
In those two wins, Wittman stuck mainly to an eight-man rotation, and Bradley Beal admitted that the near collapse against Miami was because they were “a little winded at times, but that’s just something we have to suck up and move on from.”
The Bulls opened the third quarter Friday with a 20-8 run before Wall provided the highlight of the season with his spinning, backward layup, and Garrett Temple helped the Wizards enter the final period tied up after blocking a layup by Chicago reserve D.J. Augustin and finding Martell Webster for a long jumper.
On the second night of back-to-back games, they were unable to recover after surrendering the lead against the Pistons and entering the final period trailing by three points.
“It was a couple times, especially in the second half, the ball became really stagnant. Just did a lot of dribbling,” Webster said. “You usually kill defenses with the pass, and you get the defense moving. We had careless turnovers. . . . But you can’t think about it too much because we have a game on Monday, and you just have to build on that.”