- The Washington Times - Friday, January 16, 2009

The Washington Wizards were just five games into the season - the owners of an 0-5 record following four coulda-shoulda-woulda losses - and Antawn Jamison expressed concern that the missed opportunities would come back to haunt his team further down the road.

There was the season-opening loss to visiting New Jersey in which the Wizards failed to protect a nine-point fourth-quarter lead. Then came a disappointment vs. Detroit; Washington rallied to within two points of the Pistons before falling short. Following that game was a balk in Milwaukee, where the Wizards blew a 14-point fourth-quarter advantage and fell in overtime. Finally, Washington returned home and surrendered a late lead to the Knicks.

”Those are the types of losses that might come back and bite us,” Jamison said at the time.

Sure enough, the inability to win those four - and 16 others like them - is a reason the Wizards are 7-31, only two losses removed from Oklahoma City’s league-worst record.

The Wizards have suffered six losses after managing to pull within three or fewer points in the latter stages of the fourth before falling short.

But the more alarming stat is that 14 losses have come after Washington either led or was tied in the fourth quarter. Of those 14, the Wizards held fourth-quarter leads in 12. If the Wizards had managed to win those 12, they would be 19-19 and very much in the running for a seventh or eighth playoff seed.

Instead, they’re fighting to maintain a sense of pride - with no sign of relief in sight.

“It hurts. We’ll be in the game every game, and it comes down to the last five minutes of the fourth quarter, and we always come up short,” guard Nick Young said. “It’s starting to take a toll on us now. We’ve got to get it together somehow. We’ve got to find a way.”

Earlier this season, the Wizards struggled to find additional offensive help for Jamison and Caron Butler. Knowing that, opponents doubled-teamed them, and the Wizards were basically left crippled late in games.

Lately, Young has given the Wizards the scoring they need to close out games with double-digit fourth quarters in three of the last four outings. But Washington, still trying to replace the injured Brendan Haywood, remains lacking on the defensive end.

The Wizards managed without star Gilbert Arenas last season partly because of the defensive prowess Haywood offered with his shot-blocking ability, his knack for grabbing clutch rebounds and the way he called out assignments for teammates as the last line of defense.

With Haywood out, Andray Blatche has given the Wizards solid play, having started 16 of the last 17 games, but he’s still adjusting to playing center full time after three seasons of being primarily a forward.

The other key culprit in the fourth-quarter gaffes is the Wizards’ inability to start off strongly or maintain momentum. In some games, Washington stumbles at the start and then has to play catch-up. By the time the team pulls even or takes a lead, it is physically and mentally spent and then fizzles. Other times, the Wizards will have a lead, blow it and fight back but never quite muster the full burst they need to win.

“It’s a combination of both [mental and execution],” Butler said of what the Wizards are missing. “You don’t want the other team to have more momentum than you, and then obviously you have to execute. You have to be real sharp.”

Added fellow starter Mike James: “It’s frustrating every day coming to work and knowing that we’re losing these games, but we’ve got to keep it going and find a way. We’re going to be able to get what we want on the offensive end, but that’s not the concern. It’s not about outscoring no one on this level. … It’s about getting stops in this game, and we’re not successfully able to get the stops we need.”

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