'I'm just a Wizard, standing in front of a crowd, asking it to love him.' (Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports)
For the past six weeks, the Washington Wizards have seemed like two drastically different teams depending on whether they play at home or on the road. Since the start of December, Randy Wittman's team has gone 7-3 away from the District but just 2-7 in the not-so-friendly confines of the Verizon Center, with their John Wall-led offense operating like an above-average unit on the road (averaging 103.6 points per 100 possessions, just behind the Sacramento Kings' 12th-place offensive efficiency number, according to NBA.com) and plummeting to the lower reaches of the league in front of their home fans (97.6 points-per-100, which would be the NBA's fourth-worst mark over the full season).
Away from home, it's been game-winning layups and wink-and-a-nod pull-ups; at the Phone Booth, it's been close losses to struggling teams, multiple double-digit beatdowns and the kind of performances that have Wittman comparing his squad to an AAU team. The disparity's been even worse since the changing of the calendar. According to NBA.com's stat tool, the Wizards have outscored the opposition by just under three points-per-100 over four January road games — even accounting for the 27-point shellacking the Indiana Pacers laid on them at Bankers Life Fieldhouse last Friday — and have been outscored by nearly 14 points-per-100 in four home affairs in 2014.
Something's rotten in the District of Columbia, to the point where Wittman's joking about having the Wiz come out in their road reds for Wednesday's home contest against the two-time-defending champion Miami Heat. As Brazilian big man Nene sees it, though, this isn't about wardrobe. This is a matter of the heart. From Michael Lee of the Washington Post:
[...] the Wizards (17-19) won’t need to change uniforms to recreate the road mentality against Miami. The Heat is perhaps already feeling at home after paying a second visit with President Obama at the White House on Tuesday afternoon, in celebration of its second straight NBA title. And ever since the Heat formed a superpower with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, the crowd at Verizon Center often leans toward the side of the visiting team.
“We need a little more love,” Nene said of the fans at Verizon Center. “Because my last two seasons, I saw they’re cheering too much for Miami. We’re going to play hard and if they cheer for Miami, we’re going to take the victory because that’s extra motivation. Now if they enjoy us, support us, we’re going to play much better at home.” [...]
“We need a signature win like that on our résumé,” Wall said. “It’s going to be amazing. You know they’re going to have their Heat fans in here, with their jerseys and cheering for them, but we’re going to have our great side of fans here. You can’t control how that goes. Hopefully it makes us feel like we’re on a road game.
Nene and Wall aren't alone in noting the vocal support the modern-day Heat have received at the Verizon Center — teammate Martell Webster described a rare early-season victory over Miami last season as winning "on the road at home," given how loud the ovation was for Heat star LeBron James in pre-game announcements. And while the Wizards' work to move into the thick of the East's playoff chase — they enter play Wednesday night at 17-19, just two games behind the Toronto Raptors and Atlanta Hawks for the No. 3 slot in the admittedly awful conference — has seemed to result (at least anecdotally) in a warmer Washington crowd, the team's recent home woes and the presence of incoming superstars could result in a bit less "love" than Nene hopes. Then again, given how well the Wiz have seemed to respond in hostile environments, maybe that's not such a bad thing.
While increased fan support's obviously always welcome, more fan "love" probably won't help Washington nearly as much as some hot 3-point shooting. In their 17 wins this season, the Wizards have shot 45 percent from long range; in their 19 losses, that number drops down to 32 percent, with floor-spacing wings Webster (49 percent in wins, 30.9 percent in losses) and Trevor Ariza (46.8 percent in wins, 34 percent in losses) experiencing especially big splits. Given how heavily dependent both swingmen are on the shot creation of others — more than 93 percent of Webster's triples have come off a direct assist, and nearly 96 percent of Ariza's have — their long-range drop-off seems like a symptom of a larger sickness: When Wall, Nene, Bradley Beal, Garrett Temple or whoever else has been tasked with initiating the Washington offense is able to get into the teeth of the defense, draw additional attention, kick to open teammates and generate good perimeter looks, the Wizards' attack works well. Without such penetrate-and-pitch play to force defensive rotations and create openings, though ... not so much.
The good news for Nene, Wall, Beal and company? The Heat allow the league's fourth-most 3-point attempts per game (23.1), give up the league's fifth-highest opposing 3-point percentage (37.1 percent) and at times seem to take their foot off the gas against less-than-stellar competition (Miami's got an .846 winning percentage against .500-plus teams and a .667 mark against those with losing records). The bad news: the Wizards are 1-14 against teams that currently have .500-or-better records, and some recent chatter about whether or not James is "coasting" his way through this regular season figures to have the four-time league MVP revved up for Wednesday's matchup. From ESPN Insider Tom Haberstroh (subscription required):
"I'm listening to the numbers. Even though I'm not a big numbers guy, I do my part," James said. "Maybe I do have to start ramping it up a little but more." [...]
"We'll see Wednesday how I'm coasting," James said jokingly as he made his way into the Heat locker room on Monday. "You'll see the numbers I'll put up on Wednesday. Just watch."
You might need a looooooooot more love, Nene.
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