- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 8, 2015

The Verizon Center crowd was stirred from its slumber when New York Knicks point guard Shane Larkin scored. His layup pulled the Knicks to within five points midway through the fourth quarter.

Larkin’s layin caused awakenings because of the woeful state of the Knicks. Coming into Wednesday, they had lost 12 consecutive games. They can’t score (29th in the league), rebound (also 29th) or win (they have done that just five times this season). Their lone star, Carmelo Anthony, did not play. New York traded gunner J.R. Smith and capable Iman Shumpert earlier in the week. Their roster has devolved into something expected to be on a bus between games in small midwestern towns.

The aspirational Wizards led this hodgepodge of ineffectiveness by 20 points in the third quarter, despite minimalist effort much of the evening. That lead moved to 17 in the fourth quarter. For Larkin to sneak the Knicks within two buckets was news.

Quickly, the palpitations caused by Larkin’s hoop ceased. The Wizards inserted four starters to join Rasual Butler. Three minutes later, they led by 15 points. Beating the Knicks 101-91 Wednesday night was not a call-to-mom level feat. It just had to be done.

The Wizards returned from the longest road trip of the season still looking for reasons to puff out their chests. They were 2-3 on the road and featured multiple defensive breakdowns against the steel of the Western Conference. Four of the five teams they faced scored more than 100 points. Each loss was by at least seven points, including an 114-87 thumping by the Dallas Mavericks.

Not sending the Knicks out of Verizon Center with a 30-point loss showed the Wizards still had work to do beyond handling fourth quarters and defense on the road better.

Asked what he said to the team after Larkin scored, coach Randy Wittman answered quickly.

“You don’t want to know,” Wittman said.

Afterward, Bradley Beal addressed the overarching lamentable point.

“We said we want to be this ‘elite’ team,” Beal said. “In order for us to do that, we have to be able to come out and be ready to go and put teams like this away. Because if we let them hang around, throughout the game, anything can happen at the end of the game.

“Eventually, we got it together.”

This is not new. One of the arguing points against the Wizards’ success — they are 24-11 and three games out of the top seed in the Eastern Conference — is they do not beat bad teams by a significant margin.

They blew out the Denver Nuggets by 30 points Dec. 5. They beat the Miami Heat by 21 points Dec. 1. Otherwise, the margin of victory has been 16 points or fewer. The Wizards outscore opponents on the season by just 2.5 points. That average gap would be much larger, perhaps by two or three possessions, were it not for the Wizards letting bad teams back into games.

“It’s a situation where, if you sleepwalk through it, you can look bad,” Wittman said. “And we slept-walked after I think we got up 20. We just can’t take things for granted. That’s more a mental thing that we’ve got to get better at.”

Extended talk about the difficult five-game road run often left out discussion of what was coming when the Wizards’ returned. After the Knicks’ get-well card, the schedule produces significant challenges. The Chicago Bulls are back in Verizon Center on Friday. Washington needs to find a solution to Derrick Rose receiving picks from Pau Gasol. In the first game against Chicago this season, a Dec. 23 99-91 home loss that left Joakim Noah smirking at the Washington bench at the end, they could not.

Sunday, the Wizards travel to play the conference-leading and thoroughly surprising Atlanta Hawks. The reigning champion San Antonio Spurs come to D.C. on Tuesday. Then, it’s out to Chicago to face the Bulls again Wednesday.

Though it’s not all on the road, that stretch is comparable in difficulty to the one the Wizards just went through in Texas. It’s also more of a legit measure of where Washington stands a month before the All-Star break. Chicago and Atlanta, along with the Toronto Raptors, are the teams the Wizards need to be better than. How Washington stacks up with the Western Conference is irrelevant prior to entrance into the NBA Finals. And, it’s an especially distant concern on a night when the pitiful Knicks were not boxed and shipped by the end of the third quarter.

• Todd Dybas can be reached at tdybas@washingtontimes.com.

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