Before the Washington Wizards hosted the surprising Phoenix Suns in the first game of a critical eight-game stretch, center Marcin Gortat called out his teammates, imploring anyone sleepwalking toward the finish to wake up. Coach Randy Wittman demanded a better defensive effort, blaming their recent slide on a lack of focus on that end of the floor.
Neither sentiment appeared to take hold until much too late Wednesday night at Verizon Center. The Wizards came out sluggish, rotating late on the Suns’ three-point shooters and letting the visitors take a 25-point lead before they started competing.
“Nobody expected we going to play like that. We just didn’t perform. I truly don’t know,” Gortat said after scoring 17 points against his former team. “Sometimes we show that mentally we are weak and we’re just not competing. That’s it.”
Back at home for the first time in 10 days, the Wizards wanted to put behind a disappointing 1-3 West Coast swing but they faced a difficult challenge against a Suns team also fighting for its playoff life. Goran Dragic led the Suns with 25 points and his back-court mate, Eric Bledsoe, added 23 as Phoenix won its fifth in a row and moved back into a tie with Dallas for eighth place in the Western Conference.
Washington (36-35) has lost four of five and dropped to 2-5 against teams with winning records since the all-star break. Wall scored a game-high 29 points — 24 coming in the final 17 minutes — and brought the Wizards within 93-90 with 90 seconds remaining, but Bledsoe, his former Kentucky teammate, buried a three-pointer to thwart the run.
“It almost got out of hand, to where you got to play for your pride now,” Andre Miller said after scoring seven points and recording a season-high four steals off the bench. “We found a way to get back in the game. Bledsoe hit a tough shot, but we’ve got to have that energy for the full game.”
The Wizards are still a good bet to make the playoffs with the teams at the bottom of the Eastern Conference foundering, but they are far from securing a top-six spot. The seventh-place Charlotte Bobcats defeated Brooklyn to move within 1½ games of the Wizards. On Friday, Washington will host the Indiana Pacers, the only team in the East they have yet to defeat.
“We got to find a way to get out of this slump,” Wall said. “Either you find yourself into the playoffs at six seed or higher, or you find yourself seven or eight, or you keep playing this way, you find yourself out of the playoffs. We got to find a way to get on the right track of winning.”
Wall said he was excited about facing Bledsoe for the first time this season. Bledsoe had missed the previous meeting in Phoenix as he recovered from surgery to repair a meniscus tear in his right knee. He returned to action earlier this month and has helped put the Suns back in the playoff hunt, pairing with Dragic to form a two-headed point guard monster. The Suns (43-29) have won seven of their past eight, and improved to 19-7 with Dragic and Bledsoe in the starting lineup.
Bledsoe dominated his duel with Wall through the first 30 minutes of game time and scored at least 20 points for the fourth consecutive game. He made a three-pointer to give the Suns a 15-point lead, then hit another to put his team up 21, bringing boos from the Verizon crowd. They would continue to jeer when Bledsoe stole the ball from Trevor Ariza and sprinted up the floor. Wall slid in front of Bledsoe in an attempt to slow him down but Bledsoe faked a pass to freeze Wall and swooped under the basket to make a nifty layup.
The Suns extended the lead to 75-50 when backup forward Markieff Morris hit a jumper with 5:27 left in the third period but Wall made sure that the Wizards wouldn’t go down quietly. He scored 16 points during a 29-3 run to bring the Wizards within 83-79, but Suns reserve Gerald Green (18 points) made a three-pointer, then Dragic made a three-pointer and a reverse layup to push the Phoenix lead back up to 12.
Phoenix connected on 14 of 28 from three-point range, and Bledsoe, Dragic and Green each made three apiece.
“We’re just not playing defense,” Wall said. “If you’re not playing defense you can’t win. You see what happens when you don’t play defense. You get embarrassed.”
Bradley Beal went to the locker room late in the second quarter with a hip pointer after losing his dribble and getting knocked to the floor by Marcus Morris while trying to save the ball. Beal needed help to get up and limped to the bench before eventually hobbling to the locker room, grabbing at his right hip.
Martell Webster started the third quarter at shooting guard, but Beal returned with 6:21 left in the period, with the Wizards trailing by 23. Beal wouldn’t score for the rest of the game as he missed his final five shots to finish with just eight points on 3-of-11 shooting.
“I’m not going to use it as an excuse. I was in pain, but at the same time, those are makeable shots,” Beal said. “We got to bear down. It’s gut-check time. And now, we got to try to win every game. We know it’s tough to win in this league. But with the guys we have, we’ve shown that we can be pretty good and we can do excellent on both ends of the floor.”