Spending nearly 10 days in the same hotels, on the same charter flights and facing the same opponents can either cause a losing team to come together or drift further apart. And for the Washington Wizards, the season’s longest — to this point — road trip through Detroit, Portland, Los Angeles, Utah and Phoenix went a long way toward helping the players establish more camaraderie as they shared meals, went to the movies and got more familiar with one another on a personal level.
“We’re most definitely better, chemistry-wise, being around each other off the court and playing hard for each other on the court,” Rashard Lewis said after the Wizards (7-25) finished 2-3 on the trip and doubled the number of road wins they had before leaving on Feb. 11. “It helps you come together on the court and play for each other instead of being selfish.”
The results were evident through the first two victories and even during some competitive stretches against the Clippers and the Suns. But the final dud of a second half in Phoenix proved that off-the-court chemistry doesn’t always translate to on-the-court success. The Suns buried the Wizards during a 31-6 run to close the third period, in an eight-minute stretch that Coach Randy Wittman described as “the most selfish spree of basketball since I’ve taken over.”
The Wizards had established a reputation as a one-on-one offensive team this season under former coach Flip Saunders, but Wittman had worked hard to make sure that his players trusted each other and relied on ball movement to get better, more efficient shots. The collapse during the 104-88 loss to Phoenix was more disturbing, because the Wizards had started the third period getting seven points by sharing the ball.
John Wall fed Nick Young for a jumper, then drove inside, drew Steve Nash and Jared Dudley, and fed Trevor Booker for vicious dunk in the lane. Booker then converted a three-point play that gave the Wizards a 55-54 lead with 8 minutes 13 seconds remaining in the period.
What followed was an incredible meltdown on both ends of the floor, a rapid descent that turned a close game into a laugher in a matter of minutes.
Wittman didn’t have to think too hard about what happened. “Selfish is what happened,” Wittman said. “We became selfish. We didn’t share the ball and tried to do everything one on one, and a good team like Phoenix is going to take that away from you. That’s all it was.”
The Wizards have had their share of second-half breakdowns, which is one of the reasons they have recorded 17 double-digit losses — second only to Charlotte — through the first half of this season. They will host Sacramento on Wednesday in the final game before the all-star break, which will probably feel like another road game considering how much the team has moved around.
Unlike last season, the Wizards are only slightly better at Verizon Center than they are away from home. They would like to head into the break on a positive note after failing to compete in Utah, where they trailed by 28 in the third quarter, and only showing up for 28 minutes in Phoenix, where they trailed by 26 in the fourth quarter. The Wizards lost each of the past three games by at least 14 points.
“It’s very disappointing,” Young said. “We’ve seen how good we can be. We could’ve made it a more positive road trip at 3-2 but to get blown out like that, it’s tough. But we’ve got to bounce back, look forward to Wednesday.”
The Wizards should also try to avoid having the kind of lengthy letdowns that have derailed them in recent losses to Houston and Miami, as they simply gave up or failed to play as a team.
As Nash and the Suns pounded them with crisp ball movement in the second half, the Wizards tried to respond with quick jumpers. Lewis was sitting next to Maurice Evans as the Suns scored 16 consecutive points, with Nash ending the run with a difficult, hanging jumper over Wall to put his team ahead, 70-55.
Evans mentioned that the game was getting out of control and Lewis looked up, stunned at how the team could go from leading to trailing by so much so quickly.
“It flashed before my eyes. It happened so fast. I couldn’t believe it,” Lewis said. “It’s disappointing, because we wanted to win this one. We felt it would’ve been a successful trip even though we didn’t play well in Utah. I still think we did a lot of positive things.”
After the loss to Phoenix, Jordan Crawford didn’t dispute Wittman’s notion that the team played selfishly.
“Yeah, probably. When you get down, everybody try to be the hero. I think that cost us,” said Crawford, who attempted a pull-up three-pointer on a three-on-two fast break during the run. He added that the Wizards did make some positive strides on the trip. “We’ve shown that even on the road, we can beat good teams. Good teams do it every night. I think we went out and played hard. We just had some mental lapses.”