When his players returned from their mini-vacation near and far for practice Wednesday evening, Washington Wizards Coach Randy Wittman warned them this season’s NBA schedule is deceiving. The all-star break, the longest in NBA history, wasn’t the usual midway point. The regular season was closer to three-quarters complete. Only 28 games remained. The stretch run, the time to battle for playoff seeding and matchups, was upon them.
The sprint started Friday night with perhaps the tallest hurdle, a home date with the Cleveland Cavaliers, a squad Washington could encounter in the postseason that is finally fulfilling its astronomical preseason expectations. If Friday is any indication, Wittman’s counsel was ignored. The Cavaliers, headed by a determined LeBron James, throttled the shorthanded and listless Wizards, 127-89 , in front of a sellout crowd at Verizon Center.
“We’ve lost that edge of nastiness that we’ve played with,” Wittman said. “Tonight we came out and felt like we were going to warm ourselves into the game, and they had other ideas. They hit us in the mouth right from the jump ball, and we couldn’t recover from it. I’ve got to find a way to get our nastiness back, our edge back.”
Washington (33-22) has lost two consecutive games and nine straight to teams currently in position to make the playoffs. They are 1-8 against the Cavaliers, Toronto Raptors and Atlanta Hawks, three of the top four teams in the East. The 127 points are the most the Wizards have surrendered this season, and the 38-point margin of defeat is their largest.
With the victory, the Cavaliers (34-22) jumped a half-game ahead of the Wizards for fourth place in the Eastern Conference and have won 15 of their last 17 games.
When the teams split two games in six days in late November, the Cavaliers were disjointed and inconsistent. They had been swiftly assembled over the summer, and they played like it. Their body language was foul, and the results were worse. But they have since added Timofey Mozgov, Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith, three acquisitions who have effectively supplemented the all-star trifecta of James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love.
On Friday, the Wizards were the divided group. After the rout, Wizards center Marcin Gortat attributed the drubbing to subpar individual defense. He vented that some teammates depend on help defenders too often, which allowed the Cavaliers to penetrate with ease. He emphasized that they need to do a better job staying in front of their assignments.
Paul Pierce voiced a different opinion.
“That’s what basketball is,” insisted a sweaty Pierce, who went through a workout after scoring nine points in 28 minutes. “I don’t know what March is talking about. You play a team game. You play help defense. The best teams trust each other on defense.”
Washington was without Bradley Beal (fibula) and Kevin Seraphin (flu-like symptoms), and newly acquired backup point guard Ramon Sessions was not prepared to assume a meaningful role hours after arriving in the District, but their inclusions likely would not have affected the outcome.
The Wizards committed 18 turnovers, which Cleveland converted to 33 points. They failed to make a three-pointer until 4 minutes 47 seconds remained in the game and missed their other 15 attempts, while the Cavaliers went 14 for 33 on three-pointers despite missing several open ones. Washington allowed Cleveland to shoot 51.1 percent from the field and forced just 11 turnovers.
John Wall and Nene led the Wizards with 18 points each. Wall also added nine assists and five rebounds. Nene, who left the game in the third quarter with a cramp, went 8 for 11 from the floor in 25 minutes. No other Wizard reached double figures.
James torched the Wizards with a game-high 28 points in just 25 minutes. Irving added 25 points and seven assists. Smith, a notorious train wreck with the New York Knicks before joining the Cavaliers last month, made intelligent plays the entire night and finished with 15 points, five rebounds and three assists.
“They came to send a message,” Wittman said. “No question. Absolutely. That’s what good teams do. That’s where we have to get.”
Despite allowing a season-high 65 first-half points and going 0 for 11 from behind the three-point line before halftime, Washington shrunk the gap to 11 points with 9:16 left in the third quarter. But the Cavaliers then drained three three-pointers in their next four possessions to expand the lead back to 18.
Two minutes later, Nene hobbled off the court after banking in a leaner and didn’t return. By that stage it didn’t matter. The Cavaliers later stretched their lead to 40 points.
With the score 110-77 and six minutes remaining, Sessions, who caught a 6 a.m. flight in Sacramento on Friday, checked in to make his Wizards debut. The public address announcer asked the disengaged crowd to welcome him. There was barely a cheer.
“We got our ass punked,” Gortat said.