SALT LAKE CITY — The struggle has become so maddening, so perplexing, that the Washington Wizards are beginning to wonder whether a greater power is behind their inability to claim a winning record this season. No matter how attractive the situation might look, no matter how weakened the foe, the Wizards continue to reach the threshold and take a step back.
For the sixth time this season — and third in the past five games against a team with an inferior record — the Wizards had a chance to go above .500. And once again, they stumbled with a baffling performance that has made the situation a burden and a mental hurdle.
“I guess it’s a curse,” Marcin Gortat said after the Wizards lost to the Utah Jazz, 104-101, at EnergySolutions Arena.
The Jazz has the worst record in the Western Conference and had lost its previous two games by a combined 41 points, but the Wizards have proved there is no such thing as a winnable game when they have a chance to get a winning record. In their previous opportunity to claim a winning record, the Wizards fell behind by 19 points before losing in overtime to a Boston Celtics team that had lost 11 of its previous 12 games.
Washington blew a 13-point first-half lead, was unable to overcome poor shooting efforts by John Wall and Bradley Beal and had no answer for Jazz third-year big man Enes Kanter during a loss that produced a quiet and solemn locker room afterward.
The defeat came one night after the Wizards (21-22) defeated the Phoenix Suns and had Gortat proclaiming that Washington could beat any team in the league. The loss in Utah confirmed the flip side of that comment. “We can lose to anybody, too,“ Gortat said after scoring 14 points and grabbing 11 rebounds Saturday night.
The challenge stiffens considerably with five upcoming games against some of the best teams in the West. They will conclude this road trip against Golden State and the Los Angeles Clippers, then return home to host Oklahoma City, Portland and San Antonio.
Wall scored 13 points but missed 10 of his 14 attempts, including a half-court desperation shot that hit the left side of the rim as time expired. With the loss, Wall matched Michael Olowakandi for the second-most games played by a former No. 1 overall pick without a winning record (227). Former Maryland player Joe Smith holds the record with 241.
Beal, the hero from the win in Phoenix, missed 11 of his 16 shot attempts and scored just 14 points, though he matched his career high with eight assists. Trevor Ariza led the Wizards with 23 points and brought the Wizards within 101-98 when he hit his sixth three-pointer, but Beal missed a three-pointer in the left corner that could have tied it.
“I kind of take a lot of blame for this game because I feel like if I would’ve knocked down a few shots and the big three that I had to tie the game, we probably could’ve pulled this one out,” Beal said. “It’s something about us not playing hard. All of a sudden, we feel like we can turn it on with the flip of a switch, but we can’t always do that.”
The Jazz gave them another chance when Utah guard Gordon Hayward got trapped and tossed a terrible pass through the legs of teammate Derrick Favors. Coach Randy Wittman used his final timeout to draw up a play for Beal, but he slipped and fell to the floor. Nene then got the ball to Ariza, who rushed an off-balance three-pointer that was off the mark with 11.1 seconds remaining.
“It was a bad shot, terrible shot. I should’ve tried to get to the basket,“ Ariza said. “We came out lackadaisical. We stopped playing our style of basketball. We started to let them control the game, and everything changed from there.“
The Wizards quickly fouled rookie Trey Burke, and he made 1 of 2 free throws. Wall then raced up the floor and banked in a three-pointer that brought the Wizards within one point with 3.6 seconds left. Hayward’s two free throws accounted for the final margin. Kanter scored a game-high 24 points for the Jazz (15-29). Hayward added 16 points, and guard Alec Burks had 15.
Martell Webster returned after missing the previous game in Phoenix with the flu and didn’t appear to be slowed down by the illness. He caught a pass from Beal and threw down a two-handed dunk, then completed a textbook fast break to put the Wizards ahead 43-30.
But the Wizards fell asleep for the rest of the half. Behind reserves Kanter and Burks, the Jazz staged a 19-4 run over the next five minutes and took a 49-47 lead when Kanter barreled over Gortat and made a finger roll. Kanter scored 14 points in the second period, leading a group of Jazz reserves that accounted for 28 of Utah’s 51 points.
Wall slogged through much of the first half as he missed his first five shots. But he woke up near the end of the second period, making a driving layup to halt the Jazz run, then added two free throws and an assist to Nene for a thunderous dunk.
“I was a little fatigued, but that’s no excuse,” Wall said. “We had a chance to get over .500. I think we’re thinking about it too much, and we’re stressing ourselves. If we want to be a good playoff team or even a playoff team, we’ve got to find a way to win these games.“
The Wizards have had some decent success on the second end of back-to-back nights, going 6-4 entering the game. But they seemed sluggish Saturday. Wall had one of his worst games of the season. On one possession in the third quarter, Wall shot an air ball, and Gortat grabbed the rebound and found Wall again. Wall faced up Burke, tried a few crossover dribbles, then lost the ball out of bounds.
“We were running in mud half the game,” Coach Randy Wittman said. “We’ve got to figure out ways — on a back-to-back, being tired — of winning a game like this.”