Washington Wizards: Not even one for the road

Can you go 0-41 on the road and still make the postseason?

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(Photo: Associated Press)

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Can you go 0-41 on the road and still make the postseason?

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I'm going to say this one time.

The Wizards, 12-27 this morning, are five games out in the loss column for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

There, I said it.

It is only a matter of how ghoulishly bad the east is this season that the godawful Wizards could be that close. But the Cavaliers have imploded, and the Nets are Waiting for Carmelo, and the Bucks can't get healthy, and the Bobcats seem rudderless, and the Pistons and Raptors look dead in the water. There is not a single team between Washington and Indiana--the current owner of the eighth spot--that looks as if it will catch fire in the second half of the season. Incredibly, a postseason berth is there for the taking. The argument about whether or not that's a good thing is a worthwhile one.

The Wizards probably need to get in the lottery at least two more times to get the kind of talent that they need to become serious again in the NBA, and making the playoffs would likely cost Washington a shot at another game-changer like John Wall. Wall can be great, as evidenced by his career-high 15 assists in the Wizards' 108-101 win over first-place Utah at Verizon Center Monday, but he's just one piece. JaVale McGee could be another; he had another incredible, ridiculous, holy (bleep) alley-oop dunk from Wall against the Jazz, and the 7-footer got 11 rebounds in his sleep Monday.

But that's all the Wizards really can count on right now, and that's not near good enough, though Andray Blatche had another double-double (21 points, 10 boards) Monday, this time against a pretty good four in Al Jefferson. And Nick Young (team-high 25 points) had three huge fourth-quarter buckets, including a game-clinching three-pointer with 40 seconds left in the game. Washington needs more, stronger, tougher talent than it currently has on the roster.

Washington barfed away almost all of what had been a 13-point fourth-quarter lead against Utah, just the way the Wizards gave away a four-point lead with 18 seconds left against Miami and a six-point lead in the final 14 seconds of regulation against Sacramento, a game Washington hung on to win in overtime. On Monday, the Wizards were clinging to a 102-98 lead in the final minute when they ran a play perfectly. Wall drove the lane, drew the defense to him and kicked the ball weakside to Young in the corner, who made the three-pointer. Then Washington ended the possession at the other end when Al Jefferson missed a jumper and Rashard Lewis grabbed the board. Wall made two free throws, and voila! Victory.

The Wiz, executing down the stretch? Shocked me, too.

Of course, it would be nice if the Wizards could win just one game on the road first before we start all this postseason talk. They are 0-19 away from Verizon, the last NBA team that has yet to win away from home. The too-bad-to-be-true Cavs, who lost three on the road last week by 55, 22 and 28 points, have won three times on the road--including once in D.C.. The Timberwolves won twice on the road. The Redskins and Nationals have won on the road more recently. So have Maryland, Georgetown, American and GW.

"That's embarrassing," Wall said Monday. "It's the NBA. Some people make their runs. But to know that you're the last team, the last team that hasn't got a road (win), and every time you go on the road, somebody's talking about you. Commentators are going to make jokes---'They can't finish off, they can't win.' We want to get that off our mind."

Said Blatche: "I try to figure it out myself. I don't know if we don't believe in ourselves on the road, or if we lose focus. I don't know what it is. I don't know if it's because we know we haven't won a game on the road and we use that for our excuses. I don't know what it is. But we have to figure out what it is, and change that."

Actually, what's happening to the Wizards away from home is quite natural in the evolution of an NBA team.

It usually reaches contending status in stages.

First, beat bad and/or mediocre teams when they come to your building. Check; the Wizards have beaten Philly and Toronto twice each at Verizon, and Portland, Memphis, Indiana, Houston, Charlotte, Sacramento, and New Jersey.

Second, beat good teams in your building. The Wiz are now 1-6 against good NBA teams at Verizon, but they'll have chances on back-to-back nights, Friday and Saturday, to add to that against Phoenix and Boston.

Third, beat bad teams on the road. (Crickets)

Finally, beat good teams on the road. (Extended cricket families/cricket college reunion)

If Washington had any semblance of mental toughness, it really could talk seriously about a postseason run this year. But there have been so many giveaways on the road, including Detroit and Houston. Young teams get exposed far from home. They fold when the opponent makes a run. They can't get through scoring droughts, bad calls, great players playing great. All of them conspire to take the fight away. It's easier to push back at home, when the crowd is behind you and you sleep in your own bed the night before. The road is where the rubber meets the, well, road.

"When you make mistakes, or they make a run, and the game's not going your way, you can't put your head down and give up," said Lewis, who was on an excellent road team in Orlando before coming here last month in the Gilbert Arenas trade.

"You've got to keep playing, keep playing, keep playing," Lewis said. "Because you're never out of the game until the fourth quarter's over. And I think with these guys, at times it seems they hold their head down. And it takes you out of your game."

On the road, the Wizards make the same mistakes, over and over. At home, they learn.

Case in point: in the second quarter Monday, Wall committed one of his six first-half turnovers, and Raja Bell took off the other way. Nick Young hustled and chased down Bell from behind, challenging Bell's layin attempt without fouling, and Bell missed. But the only other person who was running full tilt down the floor was Utah's Al Jefferson, who got an easy layin.

In the third quarter, the situation repeated itself. Up by just 57-55, Wall turned the ball over, Williams got the steal and fed upcourt to Bell, who had another easy layin. Blatche ran him down from behind and made a brilliant block at the rim. But this time, Lewis had sprinted downcourt, too, and grabbed the defensive rebound. The sequence started a 10-0 Wizards run that gave Washington just enough cushion to hold on down the stretch.

"I messed up before when I didn't hustle back, and I had to make up for it," Blatche said.

Said Wall: "Me and 'Dray just held our heads back at halfcourt (in the first half) and they got an easy putback. We knew that was a great hustle play for us (in the second half) and that really saved the game for us. That's two points they could have had on the board."

Lewis thinks it would be a good thing for these young Wizards to make the postseason, to get a taste of what the playoffs are like. Once you play in April and May, he says, you want to get back there again.

That's true. But given that it's mid-January, and Monday was Washington's first win this season over a team with a winning record, we're clearly talking about a team that's taking baby steps. Baby steps, though, lead to walking, and walking leads to running, and running leads to winning. But winning is the gerund all the way on the far side of the road. And we know how the Wizards do on the road.

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