A long five days for Washington Wizards coach Randy Wittman came to a vehement and aggravated end Tuesday night. Last Friday in Boston, he was exasperated postgame. Wittman said his team went through the motions. He spoke quietly after the blowout in Boston.
The situation went through a moderate improvement in Atlanta a day later, but the Wizards still received a clear loss. Then, Tuesday arrived.
Hype around Kevin Durant’s presence in Washington carried the day before the game started. By the end of it, Wittman was furious. Even without Durant for the second half, the Oklahoma City Thunder ripped apart the disengaged Wizards, winning, 125-101. The margin of victory was the largest against Washington this season. The Wizards have lost three consecutive games.
“Well, we get our ass punked again,” Marcin Gortat said. “Bottom line. We can’t play like that. Without pride or any character.”
There was more. Wittman called his team “soft.” He is careful not to specifically name a player’s shortcoming when talking to the media, yet pointed out one person played 27 minutes and had only one defensive rebound. That was Gortat.
“I can get a rebound, I guarantee you,” said the 56-year-old Wittman, a former shooting guard. “You get me 27 minutes on Saturday, I’ll get you a rebound.”
The oddity of this swoon lays in the specifics of what is causing it. The Wizards have been an atrocious defensive team despite returning so much of the same personnel. They had turnover problems on offense — many of the dead-brain cell variety as opposed to trying for too crisp a pace — but it’s the non-existent defense and inability to rebound which does not compute.
For years, Washington has prioritized defense in public chatter and on the floor. Last season, it was second in opponent’s field-goal percentage. This season, the Wizards are 24th after seven games — a total that needs to be acknowledged as a limited sample. They are 26th in defensive 3-point percentage and a harrowing 28th in points allowed.
“That’s why people say defense is about what’s inside,” guard Garrett Temple said. “For whatever reason — no disrespect to Paul [Pierce] or Kevin Seraphin, the guys that we lost last year, they weren’t first-team all-defensive players — we have basically the same team and we’re not defending as good as we were last year or the previous years. Not even close.”
The rebounding is equally atrocious. Washington is 27th in the league in rebounding percentage. When informed of Wittman’s gripe, Gortat concurred.
“It’s definitely my fault,” Gortat said. “I’ve got to take the blame. It’s my part of the game where I have to rebound and take that challenge. I’ve got no explanation. I just wasn’t in a good position.”
Gortat and Wittman yelled at each other during the game against the Thunder. Gortat also demonstratively went toward Kris Humphries to yell at him with 33.8 seconds to play in the second quarter. Despite all of the team’s defensive problems, the exchange occurred on offense.
“We just talk about he didn’t pass me the Gatorade on the bench and I was mad at him,” Gortat said.
Humphries was benched to start the second half against Oklahoma City. Drew Gooden started in his place at power forward.
As Temple pointed out, the Wizards’ roster is populated with the same players who were part of one the league’s best defensive teams last season. Bradley Beal, with a left shoulder injury, and Nene, bothered by back spasms, missed the game against the Thunder, though that does not excuse the cumulative early-season problems. A team that said it prioritized a better regular season in order to take home-court advantage into the playoffs is already three games back in the Southeast Division.
“We’re not mentally tough,” Beal said. “We give in to being tired too much. We give into the all the little excuses, and there should be none. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t still be a top defensive team. We still have the same guys we’ve had the last couple years. Nothing’s changed. It’s just our mentality and our approach to the game.”
Beal said Wednesday his non-shooting shoulder is feeling better. He has a significant break to improve. The Wizards don’t play again until Saturday night, when the Orlando Magic come to Verizon Center. He’s optimistic that he will play then.
“I have a lot more range of motion,” Beal said. “The soreness is still there. But, you know, it’s something that’s not unbearable. It’s something that I can work with.
“I’m putting all my eggs in that basket that I can play Saturday. At the same time, still want to be smart and still if I’m not ready to go 100 percent, then I won’t go.”
The three days off are also a window for Washington to figure what is going wrong. Based on the Wizards’ assessments, the prime problem stems from within.
“It’s confounding,” Wittman said. “But, we’ll find it.”