One of Randy Wittman's greatest curiosities Wednesday evening, before the Wizards faced the Charlotte Bobcats at Verizon Center, was how his players would approach a game with meaningful postseason implications.
Washington entered the day with the coveted No. 6 spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs, meaning it was in line to not only avoid playing the Miami Heat or Indiana Pacers in the first round, but would match up with the untested, unproven Toronto Raptors.
The Bobcats, meanwhile, had won their last four games, and while a victory would leave the teams tied in the standings, Charlotte would hold the advantage by winning three of the four games in the season series.
What happened was fairly predictable, given the way the Wizards have approached similar games this season. The Bobcats made 10 of their first 14 shots and took a 20-point lead with four minutes remaining in the first half, and while Washington rallied back to take a late lead, it faltered in overtime, losing 94-88.
That lack of resolve, understandably, left Wittman infuriated. If the Wizards couldn't get up for a crucial late-season contest, how would they be able to handle the pressure of the playoffs when they begin late next week?
"We've got to figure that out, yeah," Wittman groaned afterward. "If you're having [problems] now, yeah. I'm worried about that."
The Wizards qualified for the playoffs for the first time in six years on April 2, when they blew out the Boston Celtics, 118-92. The intensity that night was no problem; the Wizards led by as many as 33 and shot 62.5 percent, their highest single-game mark since 2001, against one of the worst teams in the league.
Yet they needed two attempts to clinch a playoff berth. Two nights before, they squandered a 16-point second-quarter lead in a 100-94 road loss to the Bobcats. And, earlier this season, they failed six times in their bid to push their record over .500 before finally breaking through.
None of the players on the Wizards' active roster were with the team the last time they qualified for the postseason, but seven players, including center Marcin Gortat, have playoff experience.
To Gortat, who had a game-high 27 points and added 14 rebounds, Wednesday's performance was concerning.
"The way we play right now, we ain't gonna beat anybody – including Milwaukee," Gortat said, referring to the Bucks, the Wizards' opponent on Saturdayand the worst team in the league. "Seriously, it doesn't matter who we're going to play in the first round. If we're gonna play like this, you ain't gonna win games. ... If we drop to seventh or eighth, or sixth, or whatever we're gonna be, we've just got to play better."
Washington, which lost another uninspired clunker, 96-78, to the Chicago Bulls on Saturday, had three days between games to recollect itself. Players received Sunday off, then practiced Monday and Tuesday before Wednesday's game against the Bobcats.
Still, they looked tired late, which may have been a function of the team's desperate attempt to climb out of its hole and back into the game. Plus, with the addition of Nenê, who was limited to just shy of 17 minutes in his first game since Feb. 23 after spraining the MCL in his left knee, the rotation was out of whack.
The Wizards did not make any of their eight shots in overtime, several of which were significantly off the mark, and their lone point came off a free throw by John Wall with 34.3 seconds left.
Wall finished with 14 points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists for his third career triple-double, but even his conditioning could be questioned: After Monday's practice, he flew to Arlington, Texas, site of the NCAA national championship game, to watch his college team, Kentucky, lose to UConn.
"That [outcome] has nothing to do with no basketball game," said Wall, who had previously said the game against the Bobcats would be the Wizards' biggest of the season. "I got two nights to get back to my bed and sleep. I practiced [Tuesday] and had a good day. Came here, had the game [Wednesday]. It's not like I went the night before the game, so if anybody has anything to say about that, that's their opinion."
Washington will finish its season with games against three of the four worst teams in the Eastern Conference – the Bucks, the Celtics, and the Orlando Magic, who they face on the road Friday – and will also host the Heat on Monday, who could be resting their starters by then.
The opportunity, then, remains for the Wizards to improve and fortify their playoff seeding. Whether they'll be able to do the same with their performance remains uncertain.
"[It] doesn't need to be talked about," Wittman said after the game. "We know it. You know, I was really worried this afternoon that we'd be too fired up and almost come out the other way, which you kind of worry about. I wasn't expecting to come out and go through the motions like we did in the first half."
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