MEMPHIS — A vexing trend has emerged for the Washington Wizards as they stagger through a season loaded with elevated expectations: Whenever they resemble a team that could contend with any other in the NBA, they fail to carry the momentum the next time they take the floor. Inconsistency has been very consistent for Washington, and that pattern surfaced again in Monday night’s 112-95 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies at FedEx Forum.
Two days after an encouraging victory over the Dallas Mavericks, the Wizards (10-13) continued their four-game, six-day road trip with another letdown and still haven’t won consecutive games since they won three straight from Nov. 14-21.
Washington was without second-leading scorer Bradley Beal (leg) for the third straight game, but defense was the problem once again. The Grizzlies, who had the NBA’s 26th-ranked offense entering the evening, did as they pleased with a new small-ball look they assumed just 24 hours earlier. Washington has now surrendered over 100 points in eight straight games and has lost six games by at least 15 points this season.
“Until we get a commitment to defend, we’re going to be on this roller coaster,” Wizards Coach Randy Wittman said. “Right now, we get satisfied with one win.”
With franchise pillar Zach Randolph coming off the bench for the second straight game, Memphis had six players score in double figures, led by 24 points from center Marc Gasol, who wreaked havoc in the high post. The Grizzlies (14-12) shot 56.4 percent from the field and 10 of 15 from three-point range after averaging just 5.4 three-pointers in their first 25 games this season against a Wizards defense that ranks last in the NBA in defending the three.
Wizards point guard John Wall, who had scored at least 26 points in five straight games, was held to six points, all in the first quarter, on 2-of-11 shooting and had nine assists. Gary Neal led Washington with a season-high 24 points off the bench, and after tallying a career-high 28 in Saturday’s victory in Dallas, Otto Porter Jr. recorded two points on 1-of-8 shooting.
Washington trailed by 23 points early in the fourth quarter but trimmed the deficit to 11 with 7 minutes 4 seconds remaining using a lineup of reserves. The Grizzlies then reinserted their starters and pulled away as the Wizards’ bench lineup remained in the game. Memphis improved to 6-1 in the second game of back-to-back sets.
In recent seasons, matchups between these two teams meant old-school clashes. They were two of the last franchises in the NBA holding on to the basketball of yesteryear by employing two traditional big men in their starting lineups. They were relatively successful with the configurations even as the rest of the league embraced inserting a quicker, perimeter-oriented player in the front court.
Both organizations realized the style isn’t sustainable, though at different times. The Wizards, enlightened by their postseason success this past spring, began their metamorphosis during the offseason. They implemented the new style during the preseason and assumed the process wouldn’t be smooth, but the results have still fallen short of expectations. While the Wizards’ offense has improved as of late — they had scored at least 100 points in seven straight games before Monday — they ranked 23rd in defensive rating entering the night.
“Man, hard to say. I would just say maybe commitment, focus,” Wizards center Marcin Gortat said, referring to the difference this season compared with years past defensively. “I think teams have kind of figured out what we’re doing. Yeah, I’ll end on that point.”
The Grizzlies are off to a better start than the Wizards record-wise, but the team has regressed drastically at both ends of the floor coming off a 55-win season. The drop-off prompted Coach Dave Joerger to move Randolph to the bench, shift Georgetown product Jeff Green to power forward and insert Barnes in the starting lineup for the first time in Sunday’s loss at Miami.
Memphis will still play “big” at times, but the modification is significant for an organization that has taken on a throwback brand of basketball during its recent success. The Grizzlies ranked 26th in defensive efficiency after finishing fourth last season and 24th in offensive efficiency after finishing 13th last season.
But they had no problem scoring points on Washington’s porous defense from the tip Monday night. The Grizzlies shot 61 percent, including 5 of 7 from three-point range, en route to a 57-point first half after averaging 96 points per game coming into the night.
Washington, meanwhile, made it easier for the hosts by giving the ball up regularly. The Wizards committed 10 turnovers in the first two quarters, and the Grizzlies opportunistically posted 16 points off them. Neal kept the Wizards afloat by netting 15 points on 6-of-8 shooting as they went to the half trailing 57-46. But a 13-2 Grizzlies spurt to begin the third quarter — without much resistance from Washington’s defense — widened the gap to 22 points and effectively put the game away.
“We have to kind of mature on the fly because this is a man’s league,” Neal said. “We kind of feel good about ourselves after a road win and then we just think we can just show up and be able to play the same way we played in the game previous that got us a road win.”