They embraced each other tightly, applauded, gave each other high-fives and danced along the aisles. Fan exuberance has been rare in a building where the Washington Wizards have too often provided disappointment over the past few woeful seasons.
No, the Wizards didn’t win on Saturday night at Verizon Center. Utah Jazz forward Marvin Williams had missed two free throws late in the fourth quarter, which meant that fans could swap their tickets for sandwiches at Chick-fil-A. Too busy cheering, they didn’t even notice — or care — that the Wizards were unable to corral the rebound of the second miss. Or that the home team was headed toward an 83-76 loss and a franchise-worst 0-8 start for the second year in a row.
“Got to stay up, because we got to win,” said guard Jordan Crawford, who led the team with 20 points and seven assists in his first start of the season. “We can’t be down on ourselves. Still got to play the games. Still got a lot of games to go. Teams ain’t going to come in and make it easy on us. It’s tough, but I think everybody is man enough to accept the challenge ahead and I think we will.”
The Wizards remain the NBA’s lone winless team and became the second franchise in NBA history to open consecutive seasons with eight straight losses, joining the Memphis Grizzlies, who started the 2001-02 and 2002-03 seasons in similarly forgettable fashion.
Frustration over a season that appears lost before Thanksgiving, especially with John Wall and Nene out with injuries, has already taken over.
Late in the third quarter, fans expressed their displeasure by booing and a handful started chanting for Coach Randy Wittman’s dismissal. In the closing seconds, one fan upset with Wizards owner Ted Leonsis shouted, “We deserve better, Ted!”
“We’re professionals. It’s good to know that they care,” point guard A.J. Price said of the boos. “They want to see us play better. They believe in us. They’re here in the seats. We need to take that upon our shoulders and want to perform better for them.”
The Wizards knew the challenge of trying to succeed without Wall and Nene would be difficult, but they couldn’t have predicted such a terrible start. Wittman refused to lean on their absences as a crutch, especially with the team unsure when either player will return.
“That’s an excuse. We’ve got enough here to win games,” Wittman said. “And we’ve got to believe that, all right? And I’ve got to help them believe in themselves. We’re low on confidence right now.”
Wittman has been searching, scrambling and reaching for answers, so he changed his starting lineup for the first time this season. Somehow, that meant Jan Vesely would get his first start.
Wittman made the surprising move of swapping Trevor Booker for Vesely, the sixth overall pick of the 2011 NBA draft who had been a disappointment through the first seven games, scoring a total of two points in his previous three games.
He also benched rookie Bradley Beal in favor of Crawford, who had led the Wizards in scoring three times as a reserve.
The new starting lineup paid early dividends as the Wizards scored the first 11 points of the game and led 15-2 before the ragged Jazz knew what had hit them. But that lead was gone early in the second quarter. The Wizards led again in the third quarter, 53-45, after Crawford found Emeka Okafor running ahead for a layup. But after Crawford made a jumper to put the Wizards ahead 61-59, they did not lead again.
“We really have to stick with it,” said Beal, who scored six points, all in the first half. “It’s really the players. We’re the ones out there. We have to be a fist at all times. Making sure we’re all on the same page.”
Vesely had five points and five rebounds, nearly doubling his season averages. Trevor Ariza scored all 16 of his points in the first half and as he stepped to the foul line near the end of the second quarter, a small collection of fans chanted, “MVP! MVP!” Ariza was also effective on the defensive end, harassing Paul Millsap into a rough night in which he scored just six points and missed his first 10 shots from the field.
But the Wizards had no answer for Jazz forward Al Jefferson, who scored 17 of his game-high 21 points in the second half to give Utah (5-6) its second road win of the season. The Wizards also got outrebounded 60-44, with the Jazz grabbing 26 offensive rebounds. After Williams missed his second free throw, Millsap swooped in to grab the ball, got fouled and missed two free throws, before Utah grabbed another offensive rebound.
“They didn’t get a win,” Millsap said of the Wizards fans. “At least they got some sandwiches.”