WASHINGTON (AP) The Washington Wizards aren't used to playing meaningful games this late in the season, and it's starting to show.
Not only have the Wizards been absent from the playoffs since 2008, they haven't been remotely close. It's not been a matter of trying to get hot in March and maybe making a run at the final berth; they've been essentially out of it by Christmas for five straight seasons.
That is, until now. With 11 games to go, the playoffs are almost a given because the bottom half of the Eastern Conference is so bad. Washington (36-35) sits in sixth place, 6 1/2 ahead of the ninth-place New York Knicks with 11 games to play. Statisticians put the chances of the Wizards making the postseason at better than 99.9 percent.
So that makes it all the more baffling that they've laid a few stinkers lately. They were an uninspired 1-3 on a four-game road trip that included three games against teams with losing records, and on Wednesday they fell behind by 25 in a loss to the Phoenix Suns, a performance center Marcin Gortat called "embarrassing."
Then again, the whole experience is brand new to John Wall, Bradley Beal and the team's other young players.
"Hey, listen, a lot of the guys have never been in this position," coach Randy Wittman said Thursday. "And up to this point they've been playing for the summer - the last 11 games and it's summertime, OK? You've got to think differently. Yeah, you're tired and beat up, but we're playing for something more than the summer, so mentally you've got to be stronger."
Forward Trevor Ariza, who won a title with the Los Angeles Lakers in 2009, said the playoff newbies need to learn how to control their emotions in the flow of the game. The wild swings in Wednesday's loss - Wall led a comeback that got the Wizards within three in the fourth quarter - are a good illustration.
"We definitely let how we're playing affect the outcome of what we do," Ariza said. "In order to be a good team, we definitely have to not let our highs be too high and our lows be too low."
Over the years, and with mixed results, general manager Ernie Grunfeld has tried to counter the youth of Wall and Beal by adding veterans known for their leadership. In addition to Ariza, Gortat, Nene (who is injured), Martell Webster and Al Harrington, the roster now includes Andre Miller and Drew Gooden, a pair of thirty-somethings signed off the scrapheap in midseason and who are contributing valuable minutes.
But the team still revolves around the backcourt of Wall and Beal, who could add their ages together (43) and not be much older than Miller (38).
"Sometimes we get away from knowing what we're doing it for, and maybe that has something to do with being young," Ariza said. "But that's when guys who have been there before have to step up and let everybody know, down the stretch, this is where it's at."
Both Wall and Beal attributed the recent slide to problems on defense, which is usually the first thing to go when a team starts letting up. A month ago, Wall was talking about the Wizards getting the third seed in the East; now the main goal is to avoid seventh or eighth so that they won't have to face the Indiana Pacers or Miami Heat in the first round.
"It feels good to actually be in this position, knowing that we're more than likely going to be a playoff team," Beal said. "But at the same time, we can't get too complacent with that because we're not there yet. Anything could happen. We could, knock on wood, lose the next 11, and then probably be out of the playoffs.
"We've just got to stay focused because, me, I've never been here. John's never been here. A lot of guys on the team have never been to the playoffs before, so hopefully we can take this in stride, move forward and get to where we want to get to."
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