WASHINGTON -- The last time the Washington Wizards played the Milwaukee Bucks, they fell behind early, made up the difference in the fourth quarter and won it in overtime. This time, they fell behind early, made up the difference in the fourth quarter, and lost in overtime, 109-105.
Washington lost two key players before the start of of the fourth quarter. Nene left the game after only 26 minutes of playing time due to trouble with his foot. Martell Webster sprained his ankle on the last play of the first quarter and was unable to return. John Wall took over the game in their absence, but one superstar flanked by Marcin Gortat, Trevor Ariza and a couple of bench players wasn't enough to overcome the deficit the Wizards were already facing.
It'd be easy to blame the loss on a combination of injuries and an overworked core running out of gas. Easy, but completely wrong, according to Randy Wittman.
"We should have had a full tank in the first half. That's what everyone kind of uses (as an excuse), the end of the game," he said. "We lost the game in the first half."
Washington gave up 34 points in the first quarter and 56 by halftime to a team that is last in the NBA in points per possession and was missing its second leading scorer, Caron Butler. Webster played 12 minutes before going down while Nene almost the entire first half of the game, so this was not a matter of missing key rotation pieces. The team simply played poorly.
Wall did his best to make up the deficit in the second half. Still, when asked about Wall's attempt to single-handedly take over the game in the fourth quarter, Wittman came back to the first half.
"We should have single-handedly taken it over at the start of the game. Somebody on this team has to become the leader that doesn't allow these things to happen," he said. "When I went into the locker room to talk to them before the game, the sense in the locker room was care-free, unlike the last two weeks. I told our guys when I walked out, you know, we could be in a little trouble tonight."
Trevor Booker, who finished the game with nine points and nine rebounds in 26 minutes after having largely fallen out of the rotation, disagreed with Wittman.
"We might have had a couple of laughs in the locker room pre-game, but it's usual," he said. "I don't think we took them lightly. We can't take any team in the NBA lightly."
But the numbers, and the performance, say otherwise. Washington is allowing opponents to score 107.4 points per 100 possessions in the first quarter of games this season, per NBA.com's stats page. During the third quarter, when more or less the same rotations are used by both teams, that falls by almost 12 points per 100 possessions to 95.7.
Washington played hard from beginning to end in the overwhelming majority of the team's games last season. This was largely out of necessity. Nine times out of 10, when last year's Wizards stepped on the court, they knew that they were outgunned from a talent perspective and had to compensate with effort. With Wall playing like a superstar and a starting lineup that's one of the most effective in the league, it's easy to see how the team could become complacent now. The thing is, as good as Washington can be when firing on all cylinders, they're still not good enough to simply coast to victories.
The Memphis Grizzlies were once in a similar position to the one Washington currently finds itself in. In 2010, after years of post-Pau misery, the team was finally starting to get back on track. The starting lineup of Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph, O.J. Mayo, Mike Conley and Rudy Gay was talented enough that, at their best, they could beat almost anyone. They finished the year with a 40-42 record, which is about where Washington seems to be headed this year, but no one pegged them to be much more than solid going forward.
Enter Tony Allen. Once Memphis brought in Allen, the defense went from 19th in the NBA in points allowed per 100 possessions to ninth, despite Allen playing only the eighth most minutes on the team. What made Memphis so much better wasn't Allen's individual ability as a defender, it was the never say die, pedal to the floor attitude he brought to the court every night. Even if Allen wasn't the team's best player, he helped to instill a sense of urgency and intensity that rubbed off on his teammates. All of of a sudden, players like Gay and Randolph began to play harder. As good of a coach as Lionel Hollins is, there's only so much he can do to reach his players. They needed one of their peers to pay more than lip service to playing hard, to tell them to leave it all on the floor every night and proceed to do it himself.
Washington is probably going to win about half of their games this season. Unless the team can re-learn how to play hard for entire games instead of key stretches, though, winning about half of their games is all they'll do.
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