In the stretch run of their first playoff race in six seasons, the Washington Wizards are stumbling toward the finish. With each squandered opportunity, they further jeopardize their team goals as well as what’s at stake for some of them individually.
Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld would like a contract extension. A strong closing kick by the team would strengthen his argument to get one. Coach Randy Wittman is attempting to prove he’s the right guy to lead the Wizards in the future. First, Wittman must get them prepared to play in the present. And for key players such as center Marcin Gortat and forward Trevor Ariza, who can become free agents after the season, the curtain is closing on their auditions.
Needing to pick up the pace, the Wizards continued to sputter Wednesday night during an alarming 99-93 loss to the Phoenix Suns. After a disappointing 1-3 West Coast swing, the Wizards trailed by 25 points in the third quarter while often appearing lost in their first game at Verizon Center in 11 days.
Shoddy half-court defense, poor decision-making on offense and lack of energy — it was as if the Wizards were still on West Coast time for the first three quarters. They rallied in the fourth, cut the Suns’ lead to three points with 90 seconds remaining but made too many mistakes to overcome. As quickly as the Wizards got it together, they became totally unglued again, and the Suns pulled away in the final minute.
In the privacy of their film room, perhaps the Wizards will take comfort in how they performed for a brief stretch against the Suns. After sifting through the rubble, maybe Wittman will find something on which to build before they host the Eastern Conference-leading Indiana Pacers on Friday.
At this stage of the season, though, the Wizards are way past searching for moral victories — or at least they should be. They’re in an 11-game sprint to secure a top-six playoff berth (finishing seventh or eighth results in a first-round matchup against the formidable Pacers or Miami Heat) and enter the postseason with some momentum. The Wizards are playing as if they need to be reminded.
“No intensity,” Wittman said of the Wizards’ pathetic effort to open the game. “Just kind of, ‘We’re here. We gotta run up and down the floor.’ . . . We just show up and see how the game is going to play out before we [decide] how hard we’re gonna play.”
That’s obvious, especially over the past couple of weeks. Often, the Wizards have played like a team that already has secured a postseason berth rather than a squad still fighting for one. You can’t set cruise control when you’re in a tight race and the competition is closing. Sixth in the East, Washington (36-35) is only 11 / 2 games ahead of the charging Charlotte Bobcats.
Privately, the Wizards believe they match up well with postseason contenders other than the teams that play in Indianapolis and Miami. For the Wizards, it’s almost as important for them to avoid a first-round encounter with the Pacers and Heat as it to finally return to the playoffs. But before the Wizards can think about potentially winning a playoff series, they should focus on performing better against teams with winning records.
Since play resumed after the all-star break, the Wizards are 2-5 against teams above .500. Overall, the Wizards have dropped four of five and six of nine. Home-court advantage? Forget about it: The Wizards are 17-17 at Verizon.
If the Wizards want to make excuses, they could point to the loss of Nene. There’s no doubt the Wizards have missed the talented-but-brittle Brazilian, who could miss all but the last few games of the regular season because of a knee injury. They’re a resilient 8-7 without him. And no matter how integral Nene may be to the team’s success, there’s no excuse for the Wizards’ embarrassing defensive effort against Phoenix.
The Suns (43-29) are tied with Dallas for the eighth and final playoff spot in the West. Few teams can field a lineup with as many sharp long-range shooters, which Wittman emphasized in preparing for the game. The Wizards didn’t listen.
That’s the only reasonable conclusion after the Suns shot uncontested jumpers throughout the game en route to making 14 three-pointers and shooting 50 percent from behind the arc. “We are just not playing defense,” said guard John Wall, who scored 24 of his game-high 29 points in the last 17 minutes while single-handedly leading the rally that fell short. “If you are not playing defense, you can’t win.”
Clearly, the Wizards haven’t been ready to compete at the outset of many games, “and when you play with no intensity, you’re not going to have an effort defensively that’s going to show up,” Wittman said. “Unless you’re just are hoping for the other team to miss some shots.” That’s not the ideal way to play defense.
On paper, the team Grunfeld assembled is more than talented enough to get back on track. Wall, Ariza and Gortat are players around whom the Wizards can rally. What’s troubling, though, is that the Wizards’ slide is stirring questions about the team’s toughness. And apparently the doubt is strongest within the Wizards’ locker room.
“Sometimes we show that mentally we are weak,” Gortat said. “And we’re just not competing.”
For more by Jason Reid, visit washingtonpost.com/reid.