As Jordan Crawford walked through the tunnel, following yet another fourth-quarter collapse, he pulled at the drawstrings on his shorts, lifted his head toward the rafters, shook it and rolled his eyes. It couldn’t have happened again. Not like this. Not at home. Not against the Detroit Pistons.
But as Rodney Stuckey and the Pistons giddily hugged and celebrated a 79-77 victory at center court, the Washington Wizards had to deal with completing an improbable home threepeat on Monday night, as they allowed their third straight opponent to rally back from a double-digit second-half deficit to pull out a victory at Verizon Center.
“It’s mental. It’s mental for sure. You think about it all the time,” Crawford said after scoring a team-high 20 points. “We’re playing to not lose and that’s why we’re not winning. It’s frustrating. We got to play to win the game.”
If they already had proved themselves capable of consistently winning close games, the Wizards (11-38) could easily be accused of tanking to secure a higher position in the upcoming NBA draft, but they simply don’t know how to finish — and have watched their opponents snatch away games that they probably had no business being in, let alone winning.
Unlike their previous two home losses against Indiana and Atlanta — teams with playoff aspirations — the Pistons (17-32) are headed for the lottery as well and have had similar struggles with winning in crunch time. Not only that, the Wizards had demolished them by 21 points when the teams played last month in Auburn Hills, Mich., and led by 13 points in the third; and by led by 12 when Crawford hit a 20-foot jumper with 8 minutes 49 seconds left in the game.
But the Pistons were undeterred by the deficit and displayed more composure and hustle down the stretch. Pistons rookie Brandon Knight hurdled his bench to track down a loose ball, threw the ball between his legs and landed on the Gatorade bucket. Knight knocked over the cups into his teammates and soaked his own jersey in the process.
John Wall could only chuckle after watching a cleaning crew come and wipe down the seats on the Pistons bench and his fellow Kentucky alum was forced to air dry. The Pistons had the last laugh, however, as Stuckey scored 12 of his game-high 24 points in the fourth quarter, including the game-winning pull-up jumper with 0.2 of a second remaining.
“You got to put teams away. You’ve got to put them away and we haven’t learned that yet,” Coach Randy Wittman said after his team lost their third game in three nights and fourth in a row overall. “How many times? If you keep running into the same guy and he keeps punching you in the face, you’re going to learn to get your hands up aren’t you? This is three straight times and we’re busting our tails to put ourselves in that position and . . . for this team, you have to tighten the screws even more when you’ve got a team down to get that win. How long it takes? I don’t know. We’re going to keep trying.”
The Wizards have seen a similar scenario play out in each game, with Paul George nailing a go-ahead three-pointer in the final minute to propel Indiana to the win last Thursday; Joe Johnson knocking down a wide-open go-ahead three-pointer in the final minute for Atlanta on Saturday, and Stuckey giving the Pistons their first lead of the second half when he hit a three-pointer to put his team ahead, 74-73, with 55 seconds remaining.
“We just gave it away,” Wall said after scoring 14 points with nine assists but going scoreless with two turnovers in the fourth quarter. “You think how many games we lost in a row right now like this, it’s tough. But all it is, is preparing us to figure out how to be a better team down the stretch and keep leads.”
Wall has also had a difficult run in the closing seconds of late, as he failed to get off a shot in a timely fashion against Indiana and missed a desperation, tying three-point attempt against Atlanta. After former Georgetown star Greg Monroe (10 points, 10 rebounds) had a rebound tip-in to give the Pistons a 76-71 lead with 40 seconds left, Nene fed the ball to a cutting Wall along the baseline, but Wall short-armed a point-blank layup attempt.
The Wizards quickly fouled Ben Wallace, who made 1 of 2 free throws, and got the ball back inside to Nene, who returned after missing the previous game with back spasms to score six of his eight points in the final period, including the tying hook shot with 5.8 seconds remaining. But the Pistons got the ball to Stuckey who quickly weaved around Crawford and Roger Mason Jr. to hit the decisive basket and smile all the way off the court.
“That’s three [home] games now where we’ve had a lead and let it go and it’s very frustrating,” Mason said. “We’ve got to get better. You can’t let the same things continue to happen. Hopefully, these three games we’ll learn and the next time we’re in this situation, we come out on top.”