- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 26, 2015

Voice rising, Randy Wittman was making his point. The Washington Wizards had just piled another putrid loss on top of an already rancid stack of recent defeats when they let a 10-point fourth-quarter lead go away Wednesday night in Verizon Center before losing, 104-103, to the sub-.500 Indiana Pacers.

“We got to have other guys step up, especially when you have injury,” Wittman said. “We’ve got to have some of our other guys step up. That’s it. Sugarcoat all you want, we’ve got to have other guys step up and play. Opportunities are here, all right? When you have a guy like Brad [Beal] go down early, you’ve got to have guys step up. I’m searching to play guys. I’ve given guys opportunities. I’m looking for somebody to snatch minutes. Tell me you deserve [to play].”

So often, this is the message of a searching coach at an early or mid-season point. It comes when his team is slipping off the rails on occasion and a varied deployment of the bench is producing no positive results. Instead, this was the lament after game 72 of a season filled with promise that has been stripped of inspiration.

The Wizards, the feel-good story of the area early after a surprise playoff advancement last season and a hope-building start, are on an enduring backtrack. Only pervasive mediocrity in the Eastern Conference is keeping them afloat.

“We’ve been a lot of different scenarios here,” Wittman said of his three-plus seasons in Washington. “Some tough ones, some good ones. Every year is different and this year, I have been searching and playing a lot of different guys off the bench and out on the perimeter and I still am. The opportunity is there.”

Wittman’s latest effort to find value on the wing off his bench has resulted in playing time for Martell Webster, who has been the first man off the bench the past two games. He also started the second half of Wednesday’s loss to the mostly inept Pacers because Beal sprained his right ankle.

Like Wittman, who has been on an extensive journey to find bench consistency, Webster has dealt with a careening season. His third career back surgery delayed his debut until Dec. 30. He played 14 minutes that night, five minutes in the next game, then sat for two consecutive games. In January, he played in 11 games. He did not play in six. He never played more than 18 minutes. February brought a similar month of lurching opportunity.

Up until Wednesday, Webster had played 46 minutes in the month of March. Against the Pacers, he played a season-high 28 minutes. That was his most since April 4 of last season.

He has spent the majority of the season tethered to strengthening bands and sitting courtside on an exercise ball. He has been working, Webster explained, and waiting. He wanted to be playing. He was not. That was an adjustment.

During the Wizards‘ dreadful West Coast road trip, Webster would walk for two or three miles in each city just to clear his head, he said. He would lift weights and work on his cardiovascular conditioning. Webster is philosophical and artistic. Hearing him say, with a Zen tinge, that he wanted to get his mind in the right place — “I came with a mindset just forget everything, worry about the things I can control” — is not a surprise.

He hoped this preparation would make him ready and save him embarrassment if Wittman did turn to him in a consistent way for the first time this season.
“You want to be ready,” Webster said. “So you don’t want to make a fool out of yourself because this whole time you figure you should be playing and you expect to play, then a lot of times guys go out there and you’re just not ready. I didn’t want to be that person. Had to make sure my mind was right.”

Webster’s mind clearing is yet to align his shot. He is 2-for-10 the last two games during his minutes bump, and is shooting 25 percent during his sporadic season. His first two seasons in D.C. ,he shot 44.2 percent and 43.3 percent.
“I haven’t found my rhythm shooting yet, but it’s going to come because I’m working,” Webster said.

Webster was also on the floor for one of the season’s significant breakdowns. On Indiana’s final possession Wednesday night, the Wizards knew power forward David West would set a half-hearted screen for point guard George Hill out of a timeout. West was likely to slip out of the screen to be open for a long jump shot. Washington’s plan was to trap Hill. If he passed the ball off to West, the other defenders would rotate accordingly.

Two odd things occurred during the play. Not only did the Wizards not trap the ball — resulting in Hill’s straight-line drive for a game-winning layup — but Webster was surprisingly guarding Hill, which resulted in a distinct speed mismatch. After the game, John Wall explained that Webster was on Hill because of Wall’s five fouls.

On Thursday, when asked why Wall was guarding C.J. Watson, the player Wall was switched to after the timeout, Wittman said, “John did that.” The process was as mutilated as the result.

The Wizards have lost four consecutive games. With 10 games remaining, they are the No. 5 seed in the Eastern Conference. During an end-of-season search, there is one thing Webster believes and seems to be among the few concrete things around the team, at this point.

“We know we should be playing a hell of a lot better,” he said.

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