WASHINGTON - Feel free to insert your own punchline about the Washington Wizards' season as it officially reached joke stage with last night's 93-88 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers.
As if losing to the Clippers, the second-youngest team in the NBA with only one previous road win, wasn't bad enough, the Wizards squandered a 21-point lead in the third quarter and were up by 10 points with 6:10 to go.
In a season that has included double-digit home losses to Atlanta and New Jersey, this was the worst.
"We blew it. We choked - whatever you want to call it. We didn't get it done. That's the bottom line, plain and simple," said Washington guard Rod Strickland.
Washington coach Leonard Hamilton, choosing his words very carefully, elected to take the blame for the loss himself, though it was also clear that he was profoundly disappointed in what his team did in the fourth quarter, during which the Clippers (6-14) outscored Washington, 37-16.
"A lot of people evaluate talent in terms of your quickness, strength, speed, your ability to go out and get a rebound, block a shot or score a point. But there's a certain amount of ability that's required to get yourself in the proper frame of mind where you can play at your highest efficiency at a consistent basis. That's the skill that we have not been able to develop," said Hamilton.
Hamilton's players refused to let him fall on his sword for their play.
"We lose as a team, we win as a team," said Strickland. "We lose, the coaches win. If we win, the coaches win. All that taking-blame stuff, I'm not feeling that."
Said Juwan Howard: "He's doing a favor for us. We are to blame. There's no excuse for this. Our effort was just horrible. It's embarrassing for this team, for this organization, and for the city."
For most of the game, the Wizards (4-15) were on cruise control, outscoring the Clippers, playing the fifth game of a six-game East Coast swing, 18-8 out of the gate and holding Los Angeles to a season-low 30 points at halftime.
But Hamilton said the lead was deceiving, in that Washington, which had 11 of its 21 turnovers in the first half, really wasn't putting distance between itself and the Clippers.
"Even though we were up 18, 19, or 20 points, I never really felt like we were playing with inspiration. Even though we were up, I never really felt like we had the eye of the tiger that it takes, the killer instinct that it takes to really, really put the team away. Even though we were playing well enough to be ahead, I never felt comfortable," said Hamilton.
His fears turned out to be well-founded. The Clippers', bench outscored Washington's, 56-32, and struck gold behind second year star Lamar Odom and rookie guard Keyon Dooling. The pair hit four of the six three-pointers in the fourth quarter to narrow the gap.
Odom, who had a game-high 20 points, 14 in the fourth, hit a three with 3:17 to give Los Angeles their first lead of the night, then nailed the game with 17.1 seconds to go with a three off a pick-and-roll with Dooling, who had all 12 points in the fourth, to make the lead four.
"It was a big win for us. I think Keyon Dooling and Lamar Odom took us home in the fourth quarter. This is a great win for us," said former Jeff McInnis, a former Wizard guard.
And the worst possible loss for the Wizards.