Since Nene arrived from the Denver Nuggets, the Washington Wizards have looked like a scrappy, competitive team capable of pulling out some wins — but aside from Nene’s triumphant debut in New Jersey, the team has only been able to look the part for about 47 minutes each game.
Saturday night, for the second game in a row, the Wizards found a way to do just about everything right until the end, when they squandered another double-digit, second-half lead against a team with playoff aspirations and lost, 95-92, to the Atlanta Hawks at Verizon Center.
After riding the inside-out combination of Nene and Jordan Crawford to a 16-point third-quarter lead, the Wizards neglected the Brazilian big man in the final minutes and watched Crawford keep shooting until he cooled off down the stretch.
The scenario played out much differently from two nights before, when Washington blew a 22-point lead against the Indiana Pacers before collapsing in inexplicable fashion, but the final result was identical.
“To lose two games like this — I really feel like we just gave it away,” veteran reserve guard Roger Mason Jr. said. “These are two winnable games, and we didn’t get the job done.”
The Wizards (11-36) managed to keep all-star guard Joe Johnson quiet for most of the night. But he scored nine of his 16 points in the final 4 minutes 17 seconds, including a decisive three-pointer with 46 seconds remaining, as the Hawks swept the three-game season series. Nene had a team-high 21 points to go with 11 rebounds and two assists, but he didn’t score — or get a touch — after making two free throws to give the Wizards a 90-86 lead with 3:58 left. Instead, the Wizards took several questionable shots until the very end.
“The ball’s got to go inside more than it does,” Coach Randy Wittman said.
After Johnson’s three-pointer put the Hawks ahead 93-92, Wittman called a timeout and Jordan Crawford wound up working down the clock and waved off a screen to go one-on-one with Johnson. He took a fallaway shot from 21 feet that missed badly — even as Nene appeared to have his man sealed off inside.
“I already knew that was coming,” said Johnson, Crawford’s former teammate with the Hawks, when asked if he was surprised Crawford took the shot. Johnson added that he knew the Hawks (29-20) could come back because, “Down the stretch, when it’s gut check time . . . then everybody seems to get a little tense, a little tight and then the basket is not as big.”
Crawford had 20 points, but missed all three of his field goal attempts in the fourth quarter, when the Wizards scored just 14 points. He didn’t speak with reporters after the game.
John Wall had another forgettable night as a follow-up to a performance in which he dribbled out the clock without releasing a shot in time in Thursday’s 85-83 loss to Indiana. He missed 9 of 10 shots — including a tying three-point attempt as time expired — and finished with just eight points and three assists.
“I fell short of a leader to close the game for us,” Wall said.
Reserve forward Edwin Ubiles scored 10 points off the bench, but no other Wizards player scored in double figures.
Playing the first of three games in three nights, the Wizards were unable to avoid losing all three games this season against the Hawks. They were in Atlanta the day after acquiring Nene in a three-team trade, but Nene had yet to take his physical and the Hawks won easily as Johnson matched his season high with 34 points.
Crawford gave the Wizards a 73-57 lead when he buried a pull-up jumper with 2:37 left in the third period, but the Hawks went on a 17-5 run to get within 78-74 and forced Wittman to call and timeout and insert Nene.
“Everybody was like, ‘Here we go again.’ I think it might’ve caused some frustration,” Trevor Booker said. “We’ve got to learn how to step on people’s throats.”
Nene found Ubiles open under the basket and Ubiles was fouled as he made a layup. Roger Mason Jr. hit a three-pointer from the right corner to give the Wizards an 87-78 advantage, but the Hawks went on another 17-5 to close out the game.
Josh Smith (20 points) tied the game at 90 by hitting a long jumper and Wall drove inside, flipping up a terrible shot as he fell down. Booker rebounded the miss and made a layup to give the Wizards a 92-90 lead, but later was called for a foul while battling with Smith for a rebound on a Kirk Hinrich miss.
“That call? My silence is better than to talk about it,” Nene said. “Our team did an amazing job. We worked hard. Just the fourth quarter, something we can’t control happened and we lost the game. But I’m proud of my team.”
After the foul, the Wizards had a defensive breakdown that left Johnson wide open. Booker tried to scramble to contest the shot but was too late.
“We’re competing against quality playoff teams and that’s what I want our guys to continue to do,” Wittman said. “We pocket the good and the bad and learn from it as we move forward, the next year and the next year after, these kids get older and older, this is going to be stuff they draw back on. And then they are going to be in that position, kicking somebody else’s butt.”