With his team losing its once-solid grip on the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference, Coach Randy Wittman was asked Thursday whether he had sought other coaches’ counsel on how to guide the Washington Wizards through the final four games of the regular season.
Wittman jokingly suggested that a few phone calls and tips from coaching mentors and friends might not be enough to help him reach his struggling team.
“I need counseling; there is no question about that,” Wittman said with a grin. “If you got a good one that I can lay on the couch with, let me know. I’ll take full advantage of it.”
The Wizards (40-38) have driven Wittman and many of their fans mad with their uneven play in recent weeks.
During Wednesday’s 94-88 overtime loss to the Charlotte Bobcats, Washington trailed by 13 in the first eight minutes and by 20 in the second quarter. The Wizards rallied to take a lead before giving up a layup that forced overtime, then scored one measly point in the last five minutes.
“If you didn’t know what basketball was, you’d say that was two different teams,” Wittman said before catching a flight to Orlando to face the Magic on Friday, “and you can’t be two different teams in the same game.”
Losing three times in the past month to Charlotte is one of the main reasons the Wizards have slid to seventh place, which could mean a first-round matchup against the Indiana Pacers or two-time defending champion Miami Heat.
“No matter who you play, you got to compete anyway. If you get past the first round and make it the second round, you’ve got to play those guys,” Wizards guard John Wall said of the Heat and Pacers. “I feel like if we go out and compete the way we know how to compete . . . make shots and play defense, we can beat anybody. It’s your time to shine.”
The Wizards have lost three of five but still have a chance to finish with a better record than Charlotte to claim sixth place. They have a relatively favorable schedule, with games against three of the NBA’s worst teams — Orlando, Milwaukee and Boston — plus the Heat.
“We need ’em all. And we’ve got to hope Charlotte loses,” said Bradley Beal, who wasn’t sure whether Washington is now in a better position as the hunter instead of the hunted. “I couldn’t really tell you because I’ve never been in that position before. I guess the positive thing is we’re in the playoffs.”
But Wittman said the Wizards will need to take a different approach from what they have done in the past two games against the Bobcats and Bulls, who built a 28-point first-half lead in a blowout win Saturday.
“We’ve got to flip our thinking. When you’ve now reached a situation where you are a playoff team, other teams look at you differently,” Wittman said. “They don’t look at you as a team that’s a struggling team. They think about, ‘They’re a playoff team.’ You’re going to get their best shot each and every night because they want to be where you’re at.”
The Wizards have three wins against Orlando this season but needed Wall’s one-man rally and Beal’s game-saving block to pull out a 105-101 overtime victory on March 14. The Magic (23-55) is tied with Boston for the league’s third-worst record but has home wins against playoff-bound Portland, Charlotte and Brooklyn in the past three weeks.
Beal remembers how the Wizards felt last season, when they were eliminated from postseason contention early on but relished beating playoff teams and spoiling their attempts to claim higher playoff seeds.
“These next couple of teams are going to do the same thing. They’re going to come out and play hard and try to ruin our season and get our confidence down,” Beal said, “so we’ve got to come out and be ready to go from the start . . . Not coming out trying to test their temperature, like, ‘Are they going to show up today or are they going to let us have a win?’ It’s between the ears. It’s a mental thing for us.”
Wittman doesn’t have time to provide therapy sessions for his players, but he spent most of a light film and practice session focusing on the good Wizards and the level that they have proved capable of playing.
“It’s not X’s and O’s; it’s going out and playing the way you’re capable for 48 minutes,” Wittman said. “I think we’re going to have one of our best games of the season. I always believe that. I want them to believe that. But believing it and doing it are different. Words are cheap; we got to do it.”