The Washington Wizards used to be called the Bullets.
How fitting, because the Wizards are running out of shots to make the playoffs.
After Wednesday night’s crippling loss at home to the Atlanta Hawks, the outlook for Washington is particularly grim. Five-game winning streak or not, Washington needed to make the streak six. This is what happens when you leave virtually no margin for error entering the final dozen games of your season.
Washington’s loss to Atlanta puts the Wizards 2.5 games behind the Detroit Pistons in the race for the Eastern Conference’s final playoff spot. This team has to win at least seven or eight of its final 11 games — very possibly nine — if it wants to return to the postseason and give John Wall a chance to shine in the bright lights of the first round. For all the injuries this team has endured since the start of the season, not finding a way to the playoffs would mark a supremely discouraging moment for Randy Wittman and the rest of an organization which very nearly made the East Finals in each of the previous two seasons.
It’s true that the Wizards whacked the Hawks by a double-digit margin in Atlanta on Monday, in the first game of this home-and-home series. It’s not as though the Wizards will leave this week with an empty record against the Hawks or a lack of understanding about how to play them. The problem, as mentioned above, is that Washington simply doesn’t have leverage in the East race.
The Chicago Bulls are in front of the Wizards, but the more urgent matter is that the Detroit Pistons — on a very long homestand — are making use of this favorable portion of the schedule. Washington could not afford to split two with the Hawks; it needed to sweep this pair of contests. As has so often been the case for the Wizards this season, they raised their hopes with a win on the road, only to come home and let the air out of the balloon. This maddening tendency to not win a home game when a major goal lies within reach is the very thing which kept Washington out of the East Finals in both 2014 and 2015.
Remember: Washington split the first two games of the 2014 East semifinals against the Indiana Pacers. The Wizards then proceeded to go 0-3 at home in that series. They won Game 5 in Indianapolis, but did nothing in the District of Columbia.
In 2015, the Wizards did win Game 3 at home against the Atlanta Hawks, good for a 2-1 lead in that East semifinal showdown. Washington did not win again — at home or in the series.
Earlier this season, the Wizards torched Indiana on the Pacers’ home floor. They returned home and not only lost to the Celtics at the Verizon Center; they followed that stumble with a shocking home loss to Portland (the Blazers had just been ambushed by Philadelphia) on Martin Luther King Day. All those accumulated humiliations loom large now, such that the Wizards — even if an opponent plays brilliantly, as Atlanta did on Wednesday — simply don’t have an excuse for missing the postseason outright.
Yes, the Hawks soared in this game. Dennis Schroder was 7 of 9 from the field, en route to 23 very efficient points. Schroder was the catalyst in a perfect second half for Atlanta, which dominated the Wizards by a 70-45 score after halftime. The Wizards should not be grilled for having “one of those nights” and for merely splitting two against a solid opponent this week. All the bad turns and deficient performances from 71 games, not one, have plunked Washington in a deep ditch — one that will be hard to escape.
The Wizards have been saying in recent weeks that they’ve figured out some of their defensive problems. For a team that’s won five of its last six, one can reasonably claim these players are being true to their word.
The problem, though, is that the Wizards can’t merely be good at this stage of the season. The final 11 games have to be great if this team is going to avoid the sting of a playoff miss.