A week ago this morning, the long-laughable Wizards were no longer a joke. They had gone 7-2 over a two-week period to reach .500 and the the third-best record in the albeit lousy Eastern Conference after two-time defending NBA champion Miami and league-leading Indiana.
“I’m really happy and proud of these guys,” coach Randy Wittman said after the victory over Orlando that completed the 7-2 tear.
“We’re a physical team. Mentally I think we’ve come a long ways. It’s belief number one. They believed at the start of the year that we can compete and win. And even thought it didn’t go that way to start, they never gave into that. They knew we could play better, individually and as a team. And then guys picked it up and began playing better. And our team became better. And we are where we are. We can’t relax. Even though we’ve got three days before we play again, I don’t want to lose the edge that we’ve created here in the last 14 days.”
Wittman must have some soothsayer in him or he’s just been in town long enough to know what was coming. Last Friday, Washington lost to the NBA’s worst team, Milwaukee, and then repeated that home defeat three nights later after leading Denver by 10 late in the third quarter.
“We got up 12 and I’m trying to get some rest for some guys,” said Wittman, whose team lost power forward Nene Hilario (foot) and small forward Martell Webster (ankle) during the loss to the Bucks. “And next thing you know, you look up and [the lead’s down to] four, two. We’ve got … to do a better job of sustaining leads.”
The consecutive defeats dropped the Wizards to 9-11 at Wittman’s 20-game benchmark after they had crowed about being .500 for the first time since Nov. 3, 2009. That was so long ago that not only were none of the current players in Washington, point guard John Wall was a freshman at Kentucky, reserve big men Jan Vesely and Kevin Seraphin were teenagers in Europe and shooting guard Bradley Beal (who remains sidelined with a leg injury after averaging 20.6 points during the first 13 games) and backup forward Otto Porter, Jr. were in high school in Missouri.
With Nene and Webster joining reserve forward Al Harrington (knee surgery) on the shelf, new center Marcin Gortat and small forward Trevor Ariza are the only healthy Wizards with more than three full seasons of NBA experience. And only Gortat, Ariza and backup guard Garrett Temple have been to the playoffs.
“I don’t think we were mature enough to win,” Gortat said after the Wizards didn’t score in the final four minutes of the 75-74 loss to the Nuggets during which they hit just 36 percent of their shots and got just five points from their depleted bench. “We made some inexperienced decisions; bad shots, turnovers. And that’s how you lose.”
Which the Wizards did about as often as any NBA team over the past four seasons, whose high-water mark was last year’s 29-53 record.
“Somebody on this team has got to become the leader that doesn’t allow these things to happen,” Wittman said after the 109-105 defensively deficient overtime loss to the Bucks. “When I went into the locker room to talk to them before the game … it was carefree unlike the last two weeks. I told our guys when we walked out, ‘We could be in trouble tonight.’ I’ve got to figure out a way with these guys from a motivational standpoint. We came out and played like it was a pickup game in the first half. That’s where we lost the game.”
Webster is Washington’s most voluble player. Former No. 1 draft choice Wall is its star. However, Nene, who ripped into his young teammates for their foolish play during the Nov. 13 loss at San Antonio, is probably its most valuable. The Wizards are 0-4 this year and 7-32 overall without the fragile but talented 6-foot-11 Brazilian, whom they acquired from the Nuggets in March 2012.
“I can’t be crazy,” said Nene, who has dealt with calf, foot and Achilles’ ailments all season. “I was scared to have something worse for my Achilles’. I need to step back and … walk away a little bit.”
But even in the woeful East, where only the Heat and Pacers are over .500 and Washington is still in fifth place at 9-11, the longer that Nene is away, the more likely the Wizards will be unable to take the step up it looked like they were taking just a week ago.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011.