SACRAMENTO — The game was in the hands of the player whom the Washington Wizards usually depend on to close out games. John Wall was at the foul line, with his team ahead, needing to make two free throws to secure the win, one to force the Sacramento Kings to tie with a three-pointer.
An 82 percent free throw shooter entering the game, Wall casually stepped to the line and missed the first, then the second — and after Kings forward Rudy Gay made a baseline floater over Trevor Ariza, the Wizards were suddenly, stunningly, heading to overtime against a lottery-bound team that was energized by a raucous crowd at Sleep Train Arena.
In the extra frame, the Wizards continued to crumble as Gay heard chants of “Rudy! Rudy!” and the Kings pulled out a 117-111 victory.
“Every game means a lot to us,” a dejected Wall said afterward, “and those free throws, I feel like cost us the game.”
A four-game road trip that Wall said would “define our season” got off to a rough start as the Wizards squandered a five-point lead with 24 seconds remaining and lost in Sacramento for the fourth straight time. Wall had a miserable night, scoring just four points outside of a 10-point second quarter and missing four free throws overall. He had to watch the final seconds from the bench after fouling out.
But the loss came down to more than just two off-target free throw attempts near the end of regulation. The Wizards led 100-95 late but failed to secure a rebound after Kings guard Isaiah Thomas (24 points) missed a three-pointer. Kings big man DeMarcus Cousins, who grabbed half of his 14 rebounds on the offensive glass, secured the carom and got the ball back out to Thomas again, who sank this three-pointer. Sacramento outrebounded the Wizards, 57-41, and had 23 seconds-chance points overall.
“You’ve got to play better in the crunch time,” Marcin Gortat said after matching Bradley Beal with a team-high 19 points. “We get punished for being cocky. We get punished for being too confident and we got to pay the price now. I think we start celebrating like we already won the game. We start joking around, I guess and loosened up a little bit too much.”
The Wizards (35-32) had arrived in Sacramento with loads of confidence after rallying to beat Orlando in overtime and overcoming a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit against Brooklyn. They trailed the Kings by 13 points in the first half but came back to lead by 11 in the fourth quarter. A win could have moved Washington within 1 1 / 2 games of Toronto for third place in the Eastern Conference. Instead, the Wizards have to smart over an opportunity lost.
“In my opinion, you can’t make up games now,” said Beal, who missed 16 of 23 shots. “We should’ve put them away. At this point of the season, there are no more lessons being learned. We approach every game the same, execute down the stretch and just got to do whatever it takes to win.”
Gooden signed with the Wizards for the rest of the season earlier on Tuesday and he once again proved to be an impressive late-season acquisition, scoring in double figures for the fifth time in seven games. Gooden followed up a season-high 21-point effort to lead a comeback win over Brooklyn by scoring 18 points against one of the nine other teams that he has suited up for in his 12-year career. Although he wasn’t in Sacramento very long.
“I was here for one day,” joked Gooden, who only played one game with the Kings before getting bought out in 2009. “I still don’t really know my way around here.”
For the second game in a row, Coach Randy Wittman felt obligated to ride Gooden in the final minutes and he came through on both ends of the floor, picking up a huge offensive foul on Gay that allowed the Wizards to take more time off the clock.
Wall picked up an offensive foul trying to drive around Thomas, and Gay put the Kings ahead, 111-109, with a running hook over Ariza. Beal then found Gortat cutting to the basket for a layup, but Gay made another jumper over Ariza that proved to be the decisive basket. Gay finished with 24 points for the Kings (24-44).
The Wizards entered the game with the league’s best road record since all-star break at 6-1, with the only previous loss coming against two-time defending champion Miami. The Kings are among the worst teams in the NBA, but Sleep Train Arena has given Washington problems in recent years. Washington hasn't won in Sacramento since Jan. 21, 2009.
Wall hung out with Cousins, his good friend and former Kentucky teammate, for about five hours on Monday night in Sacramento. They watched the Clippers game, played with Cousins's pit bulls, cracked jokes and talked trash.
But through all of the fun, Cousins let Wall know that he wasn't going to cut his friend any slack when the the teams played. Cousins sat out Sacramento's previous game on Sunday against Minnesota with tendinitis in his right knee but he was ready to play spoiler to Wall's pursuit of a better seed in the Eastern Conference standings.
Cousins scored 19 of his 24 points after the third quarter and even got into a nasty exchange late in the game with Gortat. Gortat had to be scolded back to his seat by Wittman. When asked what upset him, Gortat responded, “He had bad sandwich. I had the same sandwich at the same deli.”