Whether they were done in by fatigue, attrition or a simple lack of focus, the Washington Wizards were unable to capture a goal set since the all-star break. The playoffs were essentially out of the question when they started the season with 12 straight losses (and 28 in their first 32 games), but Coach Randy Wittman kept urging his players to keep pushing for ninth in the Eastern Conference.
The goal of finishing as the best of the worst may have seemed small, but it kept the Wizards motivated through a time of the season when it’s easy for teams in their position to become preoccupied with the NBA draft lottery. Friday’s 97-86 loss to Philadelphia at Verizon Center ended that pursuit.
“We were a step slow,” point guard A.J. Price said after the Wizards lost four games in a row for the first time since John Wall returned from a 33-game absence with a stress injury in his left knee. “Started off well, next three quarters, we just faded. We didn’t have it. We didn’t compete. We were a step behind.”
After racing out to an early 13-point lead, the Wizards (29-51) began to look tired, and eventually collapsed. No play captured the breakdown more than a failed defensive rebound when 76ers guard Dorell Wright missed a three-pointer early in the fourth quarter. Surrounded by Garrett Temple, Chris Singleton, Kevin Seraphin and Trevor Booker, Philadelphia center Spencer Hawes grabbed the ball, took a dribble and made a reverse layup. Stunned that no one in a white jersey could corral the ball, Booker lifted his hands to his head with his mouth agape.
“It’s like we gave up,” Booker said.
The Wizards kept saying that they didn’t want to pack it in, that these last few games still mattered, that they wanted to close out the regular season at home on a positive note. Before their finale at Verizon Center, Wall grabbed a microphone, thanked the fans for their support, then asked them to come back next season.
Wall’s return to the lineup helped the Wizards become a strong home team, but as injuries continued to pile up as the season continued, the former No. 1 overall pick couldn’t help them maintain their torrid pace. Wall scored a game-high 24 points but the Wizards are now just 24-23 with him in uniform. They still finished with an impressive 18-6 record at home with Wall, including a nine-game winning streak before back-to-back losses to Miami — which was playing without LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh — and Philadelphia.
Overall, the Wizards were 22-19 at Verizon Center, claiming wins over playoff bound teams Miami, Oklahoma City, Denver, New York, the Los Angeles Clippers, Memphis, Houston, Brooklyn, Chicago, Atlanta and Milwaukee.
“I thought once we got this thing going and got people back and playing the right way, we created a home court here,” Wittman said. “And that’s one of the first things you have to do. Now this team has got to learn how to play on the road. That’s the next step, no question about it.”
Wittman is now trying to encourage his team to go after 30 wins and it has two more opportunities, but the closing schedule includes road games against the playoff-bound Brooklyn Nets and Chicago Bulls. The Wizards have lost six straight on the road and have gone 7-32 away from home.
They arguably squandered their best opportunity against a 76ers team that, like these Wizards, is headed for the draft lottery and is in ninth. The Wizards came out with an inspired effort, taking a 41-28 in the first half after Booker (10 points) made jumpers on three consecutive possessions. Wall scored 15 points in the first half, providing a spectacular drive late in the first quarter. He drove right, faked left, then spun around Jrue Holiday to make a stumbling layup.
But with Martell Webster (abdomen), Trevor Ariza (sore left knee) and Bradley Beal (right leg stress injury) sidelined, Wall didn’t have the perimeter weapons to keep the 76ers honest for the rest of the game and the Wizards missed their final 12 attempts from long distance after Temple opened the game with a three-pointer.
Wall made a finger roll to give the Wizards a 59-55 lead early in the third quarter, but the 76ers scored the next 12 points and never looked back. Holiday led five 76ers in double-figures with 22 points but former Wizard Nick Young went scoreless in his just nine minutes in his first game in Washington since he was traded to the Los Angeles Clippers as part of a three-team trade last March. Young was greeted with boos as he entered the game and Wall said he wasn’t surprised by the reaction.
“I remember they booed our whole team when we was here. Ain’t no telling what happens when you go somewhere else. That’s how it goes,” Wall said. “I remember times we were down 25, 30 and all you heard was boos.”
And in a flat showing in the home finale, the fans once again sent the Wizards on their way with more jeers.