- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Coming off a flat, four-game Western Conference road trip in which the Washington Wizards surrendered more than 100 points each night, coach Randy Wittman emphasized the importance of playing defense – especially as it pertains to a late surge toward the postseason.

Part of playing defense, Wittman surmised, is intensity. And when the Wizards took the court Wednesday night at Verizon Center against the Phoenix Suns, any required intensity was sorely lacking.

The Suns opened up a 25-point lead midway through the third quarter and never looked back, sending the Wizards to a 99-93 defeat, their fourth in the last five games.

“Just embarrassing,” said Wizards center Marcin Gortat, had 17 points and five rebounds. “I will put it this way: Nobody expected we were going to play like that, and we just didn’t perform.”

Guards Goran Dragic had 25 points and Eric Bledsoe had 23 for the Suns (43-29), who took a 75-50 lead on forward Marcus Morris’ midrange jumper with 5:27 remaining in the third quarter.

Behind Dragic and Bledsoe, Phoenix was able to run a series of pick-and-rolls that left the Wizards out of place, and the Suns exploited that lack of rotation for a series of uncontested 3-pointers beginning in the third quarter.

“When you’re all coming in the paint to cover down, they find the shooters,” said John Wall, who had a team-high 29 points, including 24 after halftime. “I mean, one person rotates, and they kept on rotating, and one guy will eventually be wide open. Tonight, they made their shots. In Phoenix [earlier this season], they didn’t. When you’re making your shots, it’s a very tough team to have to beat.”

After bottoming out midway through the third quarter, the Wizards embarked upon a 19-4 run to pull within 10 points, deferring to a smaller lineup with reserve forward Al Harrington manning the paint. And, early in the third quarter, behind a pair of aggressive drives by Wall, the Wizards narrowed their deficit to four points.

Back-to-back 3-pointers by Gerald Green and Dragic with roughly six minutes remaining gave the Suns additional breathing room, but the Wizards clawed back. Wall drove to the basket on four consecutive possessions, making layups on three and a pair of free throws on the fourth, to draw within three points with 1:30 left, but a three-pointer from Bledsoe with 1:08 remaining, and 2.2 seconds left on the shot clock, kept the Suns ahead.

“We played about 18 minutes of high intensity, and you know, it made a big difference,” Wittman said. “We’ve got to quit feeling sorry for ourselves, which we have a tendency to do. You know what? We’re big boys here. We’ve got to buckle up and play the game like that.”

Phoenix, which has now won its last five games, shot 49.3 percent from the floor – including an even 50 percent, 14 of 28, from three-point range. At the time of their 25-point lead, the Suns had made 19 of 30 shots.

Bradley Beal, who scored only eight points and was limited to 33 minutes after a hard fall in the second quarter left him with a hip pointer, surmised that the defensive lapses have had to do with a lack of communication and not enough pride.

“I think we’ve got to take more pride in guarding a guy and not always relying upon our help all the time, because when we do that, it just opens up so many shooters, bigs, dunks, things like that,” Beal said. “As shooters, guards, wings, everybody, we’ve got to take more pride in just stepping up and defending our man one-on-one.”

Three weeks remain until the postseason, which could mark the Wizards‘ first appearance in six years. To think that fatigue may be a factor at this point, especially with a number of young players who have not played meaningful games at this spring, is merely an excuse to Wittman.

“Everybody has played 72, 73 games,” Wittman said. “Everybody. We’re not the only ones, and everybody else has played nine or 10 games and they’re fresh. No. Everybody’s in the same boat here, and that’s the way it is.”

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