The night before the Washington Wizards were to fly to Texas to commence the most difficult stretch of their season — a five-game crucible over eight nights versus a handful of the Western Conference’s best teams — John Wall declared the Wizards’ objective was to finish the trip above .500.
Nine days later, inside a visiting locker room filled with exhausted Wizards at the Smoothie King Center in New Orleans on Monday night, Wall lamented his team’s inability to achieve the goal. Monday’s win over the New Orleans Pelicans closed the Wizards’ trip at 2-3.
Though the results were not ideal, Wall and his teammates emphasized that they were not discouraged. Wins over the Houston Rockets and Pelicans bookended a trip that included close losses to a healthy Oklahoma City Thunder squad and the defending champion San Antonio Spurs. Their only meager showing came in Dallas.
“We’re a team that can compete,” Wall said. “We can compete with the best.”
With the exception of the blowout loss to the Mavericks, the Wizards (23-11) were in every game; late-game execution hampered them, even in victories.
Against the Rockets, Washington held a nine-point lead with less than four minutes remaining but escaped with a one-point win. Against the Thunder, Washington held an eight-point lead with 1 minute 26 seconds left in the third quarter and lost by seven. Against the Spurs, Washington led by seven midway through the third quarter and lost by nine. And against the Pelicans, Washington held a 10-point lead with 1:52 remaining, but New Orleans cut it to four with 29.7 seconds remaining, making for some tense final moments.
“We just got to do a better job of executing and not letting it get to those situations,” Wall said. “We have to do a better job of having that killer instinct and putting teams away.”
The Wizards’ defense wasn’t as stingy as usual for most of the trip — they allowed over 100 points in each of the first four games — but offensive execution was usually the culprit in the second half. They mustered just 20 points in the fourth quarter in Oklahoma, 34 in the final two periods in San Antonio after netting 58 in the first half, and just 40 in the second half in New Orleans after posting 52 in the first half.
The offensive woes, Coach Randy Wittman emphasized, stemmed from pace. The Wizards walked the ball up, he said. They often didn’t start an offensive set until less than 10 seconds remained on the shot clock — usually too late to run a play that results in a quality shot. The slowdown bred less passing and more isolation sequences. Fewer points resulted.
“It’s like pulling teeth,” Wittman said.
Defense rescued Washington on Monday, and despite their troubles on the first four legs of the trip, the Wizards still are in the top five in defensive rating (100.5 points per 100 possessions).
“We went back to a lot of those principles,” Wizards forward Paul Pierce said. “We went back and watched some film and went back over it in shoot-around, and that’s who we are. We can’t be a team that allows guys easy opportunities in the paint. We can’t be a team that turns the ball over more than we assist the ball, so we got back to the basic principles of who we are today. Hopefully it’ll carry over into next week.”
But Monday’s stout effort happened to come against the worst opponent of the trip, a team the Wizards had already limited to 80 points in late November. A brief breather in the form of the imploding New York Knicks is slated for Wednesday, but Washington’s schedule — the second-easiest in the NBA through Monday — turns tough the following week.
The Wizards host the Chicago Bulls (25-10) on Friday, travel to face the Eastern Conference-leading Atlanta Hawks (26-8) on Sunday, welcome the Spurs (21-14) to Verizon Center for a rematch Tuesday, and are on the road the next day to play the Bulls in Chicago to complete a difficult back-to-back.
The four-game span will afford the Wizards the opportunity to prove they learned some valuable lessons on their recent trip — that to compete with the best they must do so for 48 minutes.
“We just got to learn how to execute down the stretch,” Wall said. “We’re giving coach a lot of gray hairs in the last five minutes. We just got to do a better job. We know we can play with the best teams.”