Marcin Gortat could have sliced his bottom lip, he was biting it so hard after the Washington Wizards delivered another disjointed performance that provided little encouragement about the direction of the team heading into the playoffs. With the Wizards fading toward the finish, Gortat has looked noticeably irritated, and the usually loquacious Polish big man has repeatedly expressed his disappointment with curt responses or simply "no comment."
But Gortat's aversion to explanations reached Marshawn Lynch levels Sunday, when a depleted Houston Rockets team dragged itself into Verizon Center and outclassed the Wizards, 99-91. When asked whether his salty demeanor was indicative of the mood of other players within the locker room, Gortat lowered his head and said, "I just don't want to get fined."
Then Gortat walked away. Nothing more needed to be said. His seven-word statement encapsulated how the Wizards have been going through the motions and playing without much purpose after a deceptively good start. The Wizards fashioned themselves as a possible contender for the Eastern Conference finals after starting the season 31-15, but that team is no more, confidence splattered by a February funk that couldn’t be washed away by a five-game winning streak earlier this month.
"It's been an up and down, roller-coaster season," veteran Paul Pierce said. "We've had our good spots and our bad spots. Right now we're going through another rough patch. I don't know if it's fatigue, but everyone in the league is tired. Mental fatigue, everybody in the league is mentally fatigued. We don't feel like there's no team in the NBA that we can't beat. It's just about believing it every night. That's the thing. Sometimes it looks like we just don't believe we can win. But I know we got the talent in this room to."
The Wizards have lost 18 of 28 games since late January, which could be viewed as a collapse, but the signs of a shaky foundation were evident before that. They padded their record by piling up wins against inferior teams and have gone 10-22 against teams with winning records.
A 104-103 road victory over the Rockets on Dec. 29 stands as one of the most impressive of the season. But since, Washington has won just six of 22 games against teams that are currently over .500 — and that includes a 20-point win over a Memphis team that was without three starters. Washington has the NBA’s ninth-worst record in 2015 (19-24).
An even more disturbing statistic is a 3-10 record against the four teams ahead of them in the Eastern Conference standings, including 0-3 against Toronto, the Wizards' likely first-round playoff opponent.
That the fifth seed is considered a disappointment two years after the franchise won 29 games is a sign of some progress. But for a team that was supposed to be building toward something bigger, the Wizards have done little to inspire and wins have been a joyless experience. They could advance to the conference semifinals again but only because Toronto also has been exposed as a team that isn’t quite ready to take that next step.
This time last year, the Wizards had an inferior record but had to feel more optimistic entering the postseason because the team was finally starting to come together. John Wall and Bradley Beal were playing with better symmetry, and the team was only a few games from welcoming back Nene for the playoff run.
Reserve forward Kris Humphries soon will return from a strained left groin that has kept him sidelined 17 games, but the team he’s joining is going sideways. Two months ago, the Wizards were on pace to become the franchise’s first 50-win team in nearly 36 years — but any chance of that officially ended with the loss to Houston.
“Yeah, it’s a big deal,” Wall said of failing to win 50 games. “We feel like we let a lot of games slip and all we can do is try to win as many games as we can and get some momentum going into the playoffs. Forget the 50 wins. Now we just got to go out there and play the best basketball we can.”
With eight games left in the season, the Wizards have a lot of problems to address — and a new one emerged Sunday as players came out of timeouts and forgot plays in the 74th game.
“It’s terrible. It’s already bad if you don’t know the plays that we’ve been running for the whole season,” Wall said.
Coach Randy Wittman hasn’t diversified the offense enough to avoid being any more than a Wall-or-nothing operation, and even his brilliant play hasn’t been able to keep the Wizards out of their rut. Wall nearly had a triple-double against Houston with 25 points, 12 assists and eight rebounds, but Beal too often becomes the forgotten man after halftime. Beal had 15 points but only three in the second half, when he took five shots.
During the Wizards' double-overtime win over Charlotte, Beal was spotted in the corner with his hands on his hips on the final possession of the first overtime while Wall pulled up with two defenders on him. Beal had no problem deferring on a night when the Wall bailout plan was in the works. But with the Wizards trailing by six in the closing seconds against Houston, Beal nearly touched the rafters calling for the ball, proclaiming he was open. Wall missed badly on a three-pointer.
The rest of the season should be about getting rest for Nene and Pierce and saving them for the postseason. But now the Wizards should sit them anyway. Both have showed signs of slowing down — Nene hasn’t had a 20-point game since March 6; Pierce hasn’t topped 20 since Feb. 24 and has shot 11 for 43 in his past six games.
Despite Pierce’s struggles, Otto Porter played over 22 minutes in the previous five games before contributing 15 points and six rebounds in 18 minutes Sunday — the most playing time the second-year forward has received in more than two weeks. The team has nothing to lose by letting Porter gain some confidence with meaningful minutes while the 37-year-old Pierce nurses his nagging ailments.
The Wizards probably will clinch a playoff berth Wednesday against Philadelphia — only one day earlier than they qualified last season. They’ve been unable to play consistently from quarter to quarter, let alone game to game. Though he kept his words to a minimum, Gortat provided the most telling response when he was asked to recall the last time he walked off the floor believing that the Wizards had played at an optimal level.
“Don’t remember,” Gortat said.