LOS ANGELES | December was supposed to be the Washington Wizards' time of year. After going 3-9 in November, the team entered this month expecting to turn things around. It started well - the Wizards won their first two games - but they have since reverted to their losing ways.
A 97-95 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers on Monday night was Washington's fifth straight defeat. After dropping those nine November games by an average of 13.1 points, Washington has found itself painfully close in all five of its December losses. Those defeats have come by a combined 11 points - 2.2 points a game - a situation that is both torturous and encouraging.
"The positive is we're in games," coach Flip Saunders said. "The negative is we're losing them."
As frustrating as the losses have been, the Wizards for the most part are - at least publicly - managing to maintain a positive outlook. They believe they are playing well enough to win and insist the problems aren't glaring issues - just a bunch of small miscues adding up to form a recurring stumbling block.
"It's stuff we can control," said forward Antawn Jamison, whose Wizards visit Sacramento on Wednesday. "You would think after the last couple games we would do a better job. But for some reason, certain guys feel like, 'I've got to do it.' Their intentions are good, but if you drive in there, yeah, you might get fouled, but there's three guys in there. There's so much traffic, you can't really see what's going on. ...
"We're going to turn it around, but we've just got to play smart basketball down the stretch."
Although they're now in a 7-15 hole, the Wizards are struggling to find a way to play with a sense of urgency. Rather than finding ways to win, as Saunders puts it, they continue to invent ways to lose.
Early this month, slow first quarters put the Wizards in a hole, but last week poor second-quarter play was the difference. On Monday night, the Wizards' play slipped in the second quarter, but they managed to stay in control. Then they stormed to a 17-point lead in the third quarter but let up and allowed the Clippers to reel them in with a 20-5 run.
"There were a couple bad possessions where we really had them on the ropes and then really helped them there. When you've got your foot on the other team's throat, you've got to go ahead and put them away," center Brendan Haywood said. "It's time to stop playing from behind and start playing hard and doing the right things when we have the lead."
No one - not Jamison, Haywood, Gilbert Arenas, Caron Butler or even Saunders - could pinpoint a solution to the struggles. "Continue to play hard" is the answer often given, along with staying positive and united.
"Everybody is trying to get that win. You just feel angry inside. I just hope it don't divide us, really, again," said guard Nick Young, referring to a locker-room rift that arose when the Wizards lost eight of nine games last month. "We got to keep working hard as a team and stay together."
Said Butler: "Games like this, what happened [Monday night], what happened against Indiana, Boston, Toronto, them games go the other way, we're talking about, 'Man, how does it feel to have a four-game winning streak?' Easily it could've went the other way, and we'd be on a nice roll right now. Unfortunately we're not, but we've got to chip away at it.
"And the morale in this locker room - we're not going to detour from anything. We're going to try to remain positive and win basketball games."