WASHINGTON -- It seemed as if Washington Wizards coach Bernie Bickerstaff wanted to sound off on his fading team after yesterday's loss to the Miami Heat but was reluctant to do so directly. Maybe it had something to do with the time he questioned his team's toughness -- after an earlier loss to Miami -- which almost caused a team insurrection.
What Bickerstaff did say after the team's pattern of fourth-quarter meltdowns continued in yesterday's 90-79 loss to the Heat was that "something that's innate" is what's crushing his team's chances of making the playoffs.
Bickerstaff would not be more specific. His players, when hearing the coach's "innate" comment, seemed puzzled.
Maybe it had something to do with Washington's hitting four field goals over the first 11 minutes of the fourth quarter. Or, after pulling to within 74-72 of the Heat on a Juwan Howard tip-in with 4: 55 left, the team's failure to connect from the field until a meaningless garbage-time jumper by John Coker with 36 seconds left. Or the team's missing its first six free throws of the fourth quarter, with that string ending on two free throws by Randell Jackson with 46 seconds left.
Whatever the reason, the inability of the Wizards (13-19) to execute down the stretch has cost the team dearly. In 32 games, the Wizards have outscored their opponents in the fourth quarter seven times. Of the team's last 10 losses, only three have been by 10 points or more, and in most of those games the Wizards have either been competitive or had leads.
"There's a missing ingredient," Bickerstaff said of his team's habit of late fades. "The ingredient is you have to look at yourself and say, `OK, do you have the innate ability to do those things?'
"To me, it's not skill -- it doesn't take skill," Bickerstaff added. "It takes an awareness in what needs to be done. In terms of if there's a rebound, if there's a loose ball I have to get it. It's the small things, but those are the things that win basketball games."
Things that also win games are recognizing and identifying who takes shots in crucial situations. While Howard has been one of the steadiest offensive performers all season and hit eight of 11 shots in the game, he took just four shots in the second half.
Meanwhile, Mitch Richmond suffered through one of his worst games of the season. He did score 16 points, but he missed 12 of his 15 shots and five of six in the fourth quarter, when the Wizards shot 30 percent.
"I'm just kind of lost for words right now," said Richmond, who -- along with Bickerstaff -- spent much of the game in conversation with the officials. "I was off. I thought I was fouled a couple of times. Maybe what happened with me was a combination of both. I just can't explain it.
"This whole season, we've given away 10 or 12 games," Richmond added. "We get into fourth quarters, and we just can't score."
The Heat also had a poor fourth quarter, at one point going more than seven minutes when it failed to hit a field goal. But Alonzo Mourning came through with eight points and six rebounds in the final period. He finished the game with 24 points and 17 rebounds to help Miami end its four-game losing streak.
Miami swept the three-game season series against Washington, winning by an average of 12 points.
"We have a very difficult time matching up with Miami," Bickerstaff said. "Miami is a better basketball team. They wore us down."
While Miami is clearly a better team, it's somewhat surprising to hear a coach admit as much. When that comment was relayed to several of the players, they cringed.
"Everyone has their opinion," Richmond said. "But we feel we can play with anyone."
The reality is that the Wizards are six games under .500 and have two teams (Philadelphia and Cleveland) between them and the eighth spot held by Toronto. At no point has the team put together a consistent string of games, and the players realize that they are at a crucial point of the season in terms of playoff aspirations.
"Absolutely it's critical, and I felt that way in March," Howard said. "In April we have to get it done."
Pub Date: 4/05/99