The Washington Wizards’ efforts to end a six-year playoff drought have often resembled a young child learning to ice skate: Once they appear to gather themselves, they slip, slide and fall again.
That inability to maintain momentum is beginning to catch up with them as expected Eastern Conference contenders who got off to poor starts are suddenly starting to collect wins.
“Obviously, it’s not a race to be proud of right now. But we knew that was going to happen. Some of these teams are too talented to just keep losing,” said veteran Al Harrington, who remains sidelined with a right knee injury. “We’re not really watching those guys. We’re just doing what we got to do, make sure we stay in the race, reach our goal of making it to the playoffs.”
When the calendar year began, the Wizards were 14-14, the fourth-best record in the conference. But they have gone 2-5 in January, and the playoff spot that seemed to be there by default is now hardly a given.
After a wild 114-107 loss to the Houston Rockets on Saturday that exposed leaks in the roof of Verizon Center and even more flaws against the league’s best teams, the Wizards (16-19) are in sixth place in the East and will visit one of its rising squads Monday in the Chicago Bulls.
The Bulls (17-18) have the NBA’s best record this month at 5-0 and now are looking down at the Wizards in the standings despite losing former league MVP Derrick Rose to right knee surgery and trading two-time all-star forward Luol Deng to Cleveland for salary cap relief and draft picks.
The Brooklyn Nets and New York Knicks are tied for the second-best record in the East this month at 5-1. The Nets (15-22) have lost all-star center Brook Lopez for the season and have dealt with Deron Williams swinging in and out of the lineup with ankle troubles but are eighth in the standings, just two games behind the Wizards.
The Knicks (14-22) have overcome the needless distractions of J.R. Smith and an upper respiratory illness to Tyson Chandler to move up to 10th, 21 / 2 games behind Washington.
“I haven’t,” Coach Randy Wittman said when asked whether he noticed the Eastern Conference has tightened up. “Has it? I’m just worried about us. I haven’t really looked at it. Obviously, teams that struggled — the Brooklyns and New Yorks — are going to start playing well and are talented teams. I think that’s probably what’s happened a little bit. They’re beginning to string some wins together. But I’m not worried about them. I’m more concerned with us.”
The schedule has toughened in January, but the Wizards have become flimsier. This month, they are shooting just 41.5 percent from the field and 31.5 percent from beyond the three-point line and have failed to score at least 90 points three times. Washington has trailed by 20 or more points in each of its past four losses, including three at home against Toronto, Golden State and Houston. Teams learning to win usually respond better in their own building, but the Wizards are just 7-9 at Verizon Center, where they have lost seven of eight, and 9-10 on the road, where they have won six of eight.
“Someway on the road, we execute better,” John Wall said. “We don’t shortcut ourselves. But at home we take shortcuts. We’re not protecting our home court like you should.”
The Wizards trailed by 25 points in the third quarter against Houston, rallied to take a five-point fourth-quarter lead and then had nothing left for the finish. In a blowout loss the night before in Indiana, Washington slogged to a measly 66 points, tying the third lowest-scoring game in franchise history.
All five losses this month have come against teams that currently have winning records. The Wizards are just 1-14 against those teams this season and will host the two-time defending champion Heat on Wednesday after they return from Chicago.
After the loss in Indiana, which has routed the Wizards twice, Trevor Ariza said, “We’ve just got to figure out ways to compete with teams at that level, if that’s the level we want to play at.”
This time last year, the Wizards were 7-28 and out of playoff contention, giving perspective to their current problems. After all, they still are just three games behind third-place Atlanta, which has avoided a collapse after losing all-star big man Al Horford to a season-ending pectoral injury.
And, Harrington added, the Wizards never assumed a playoff berth was guaranteed, no matter how decimated the conference has been this season.
“At this point, us not making the playoffs would be a huge disaster. A disappointment. We just got to do what we need to do, and I definitely feel like we’re going to be there at the end of the year, for sure,” Harrington said. “We’re not thinking that. Because it’s not like we one of those teams. Teams like Brooklyn can have an attitude like that. But we’re trying to get in for the first time in five, six, seven years, whatever it is. We definitely don’t have that attitude.”
Adam Kilgore contributed to this report.