An unprecedented level of tension simmered in the Washington Wizards’ locker room at Verizon Center on Friday night. They had just undergone a 38-point shellacking against the Cleveland Cavaliers, the franchise’s worst home defeat since a 40-point drubbing by the Golden State Warriors in November 1975, and the strain was detectable.
Marcin Gortat argued that the team’s downfall was an unhealthy dependence on help defense. Moments later, Paul Pierce, in his 17th season, vehemently disagreed. He argued that the best teams master help defense and the Wizards must rely on it because they don’t feature “extremely great individual” defenders.
“I don’t know what he was talking about,” Pierce said.
On Saturday, Coach Randy Wittman explained both assessments were correct but Washington’s problems were rooted deeper than defensive cohesion. A team doesn’t lose by 38 points because of one shortcoming. There was a multitude of flaws, and Wittman reiterated it was rooted in indolence.
“It’s pretty simple,” Wittman said. “If we don’t play with an edge and a meanness, toughness, we’re going to have nights like last night. Especially against a team like that. It was a little shocking to me, to be honest with you, and I told them that.”
That the Wizards, losers of seven of nine games, floundered so miserably in their first game back from an extended all-star break, a game with possible postseason implications on national television, was all the more baffling.
Recess is no longer a luxury. Washington is in the midst of playing six games in nine days, a stretch that continues in the Detroit suburbs Sunday afternoon against the Pistons and back home Tuesday night against the Golden State Warriors, owners of the NBA’s best record.
Bradley Beal (fibula) and Kevin Seraphin (flu-like symptoms) didn’t suit up Friday. Beal was cleared to resume basketball activities and did some light running Saturday but will miss his fifth straight game Sunday. Seraphin was a limited participant Saturday, and his status against the Pistons is uncertain.
“I have guys [complaining] about playing time all the time,” Wittman said Friday night. “Well, here it is. What are you going to do with it? Show me you deserve to play.”
The Wizards will, however, feature a more prepared Ramon Sessions.
The point guard, acquired from the Kings in exchange for Andre Miller on Thursday, boarded a 6 a.m. flight in Sacramento on Friday. Sessions arrived at Verizon Center just hours before tip-off and spent the game’s first 42 minutes studying and absorbing his new employer’s tactics and terminology next to assistant coach Pat Sullivan . He checked in with 6 minutes 9 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter and Washington trailing by 32 points.
Sessions practiced Saturday and expects to assume his role as John Wall’s primary backup Sunday, though he is another option to play alongside Wall in Beal’s absence.
“Definitely coming in as a point guard, you got to learn the system,” said Sessions, who tallied two assists, a steal and a turnover in his debut. “You’re a coach out there on the floor with the second unit. You got to transition fast. It’s all about being a pro.”
The Wizards landed Sessions to instill vigor in their second unit. Sessions is a relentless driver with the innate ability to get to the free throw line. But he isn’t a three-point shooter — he has attempted fewer than one per game over his career and is shooting 21.4 percent from there this season — so he’s unlikely to solve the Wizards’ limited three-point shooting (they rank fifth in the NBA in three-point percentage but average 16.2 three-point attempts per game, fourth fewest, and went 1 for 16 from beyond the arc Friday).
But the Wizards have maintained offense is secondary. They believe their success, how far they advance in the spring, will depend on effort and physicality and tenacity on defense, as individuals and a unit.
“Teams really come together when things are flowing on the defensive end,” Pierce said. “That’s when you’re having fun, when you’re going out there getting consecutive stops, shutting down a team. It’s fun to do that. I think everybody understands it’s fun, and we haven’t done that consistently in quite a while, so we got to find a way.
“There’s only 27 games left, but we know we got it. We know we got it in this room. It’s just a matter of going out there, getting our minds right and doing it every night.”