John Wall may have spoken too soon when he said the Washington Wizards’ just-completed four-game trip against Western Conference teams would define the season. The blunder-filled journey featured Wall missing free throws in the final seconds of regulation in Sacramento, Marcin Gortat straining his back during pregame warmups in Portland, Drew Gooden getting ejected and fined after a scuffle in Los Angeles and the team committing a season-high 24 turnovers in Denver.
Despite losing three of four, the Wizards still have a chance to make amends with 12 games remaining. The experience, however, was indeed humbling for a team poised to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2008.
“That’s not the trip we wanted and that lets you know, you try to get too complacent and think you’ve already got a playoff spot, which you don’t,” said Wall, who has never played meaningful games this late in an NBA season. “We easily could’ve been 3-1 or 2-2, to give ourselves a better chance to keep our space from other teams, especially the way Charlotte’s playing and Brooklyn’s playing. Now you’ve got to fight to stay out of that seventh spot or even in the playoffs.”
The Wizards (36-34) were one game up on the Nets for fifth place in the Eastern Conference when they departed last week. After tripping over themselves, the sixth-place Wizards trail the Nets by 11 / 2 games and hold just a 21 / 2-game lead on Charlotte.
Washington will now embark upon one of the most challenging stretches of the season, with seven of the next eight games against teams that either have winning records or are fighting for playoff position, beginning on Wednesday against the surprising Phoenix Suns at Verizon Center.
“The next stretch of eight games will really show who we are and where we want to be. That will definitely be a big check for us,” said Gortat, who was a member of the Suns before the Wizards acquired him in late October for Emeka Okafor and a 2014 first-round pick. “If we are good enough to be a playoff team, this is the last call. If some of us are still sleeping, this is the last call for us to wake up and just make sure that we’re going to start performing, that we’re start playing the right way, that we’re going to start playing the playoff games.”
The most frustrating aspect of the West Coast trip was that the Wizards couldn’t gain traction against teams with inferior records like Sacramento and Denver, something they were able to do in recent weeks — especially after Nene went down on Feb. 23 with a sprained medial collateral ligament in his left knee.
The Wizards are 9-3 against teams with losing records since the all-star break but they have struggled against teams with winning records in that time, going 2-4 with wins at home over Brooklyn and on the road, in triple overtime, in Toronto.
Coach Randy Wittman blamed the Wizards’ struggles on the opposite coast on a lack of defensive focus. The Wizards averaged 108.3 points against Sacramento, Portland, the Los Angeles Lakers and Denver but surrendered 111.3, engaging in shootouts while losing track of the identity the team had been trying to establish.
“We’ve got to get back to defending. Sometimes, we just look too much that we’re going to try to outscore somebody. We can’t play that way,” Wittman said. “There’s got to be a better focus each game — and I’ve got to do a better job of that. It’s slipped a little bit. We’ve lost that side a little bit, but we’re going to get that back.”
Wittman said the Wizards’ defensive breakdowns became most apparent out West but the team has really had trouble stopping opponents since losing Nene. In their past 14 games, the Wizards have only held four opponents below triple digits — winning on two of those occasions — and are allowing 102.1 points per game. They have gone 8-6 without Nene, scoring 103.8 per game.
Overall, the Wizards rank 14th in the NBA in points allowed (100.5) and 22nd in defensive field goal percentage (46.3) after ranking in the top 10 in both categories last season.
“Last year, we couldn’t score the ball but we could play defense. This year, we can score but we’re not playing defense,” Wall said. “Now we’re focusing on we can score, let’s just score. We’re not a team that needs to try to outscore people. We need to be a team that scores the ball the way we score, but also play defense. And when we do that, we’re a great team, we’re a tough team to beat.”
After the Suns, the Wizards have a back-to-back set against the Eastern Conference-leading Indiana Pacers and the eighth-place Hawks on Friday and Saturday, and then travel to Charlotte. Washington will then host Boston, travel to New York and return home for games against third-place Chicago and Charlotte.
“We’ve definitely got to buckle down,” Bradley Beal said. “It’s going to be playoff-like atmosphere, playoff-like physicality and some of these teams haven’t been winning, sort of like us. So they are going to be coming out aggressive. We’re trying to catch teams, they're trying to catch us, so it’s going to interesting coming up.”