Stretching the Field: Wizards liquefying in East

( - The NBA is a game of runs with peaks and valleys the likes of which can drive a head coach toward insanity.

Randy Wittman could be checking into an asylum soon for how much the Washington Wizards have dissolved in a month's time.

The Wizards were the talk of the Eastern Conference with a 31-15 record, and perhaps the attention got to their head. Swagger and style have been replaced with confusion and ineptitude as evidenced by five straight losses and 10 in the past 12 games.

To go back even further, the Wizards have a 4-12 record since Jan. 21 and are searching for answers. All-Star guard John Wall can't find one at the moment.

"It's tough. It's the adversity we have to go through as a team," Wall said. "It's definitely tough when you're not making shots and when you're not spacing. We have to do other things to win games."

Wall leads the Wizards with 17 points per game and managed a season-low five in Wednesday's 97-77 loss to the lowly Minnesota Timberwolves in the homecoming of Kevin Garnett. Garnett is an aging dinosaur and the Wizards have no excuse for losing to teams like the Timberwolves, who have 13 wins this season.

The 77 points were a season-worst for a Wizards team that was out of sync and struggled to create shots. What happened in a month's span in which Washington has struggled to even reach the 100-point mark? The Wizards have plateaued so badly they are now fifth in the East after sitting No. 2.

Washington can kiss a Southeast Division title goodbye because the Atlanta Hawks are taking that prize. Teams like the Hawks, Cleveland Cavaliers, Chicago Bulls and even the Milwaukee Bucks are beginning to play more cohesive basketball than the Wizards.

Wittman's squad is averaging a league-low 15 free throw attempts during the five-game slide, while opponents are averaging 24.8 shots at the line. Minnesota outscored the Wizards from the charity stripe, 23-7.

Shooting from distance also has been an issue over the slump and that largely has to do with the absence of guard Bradley Beal.

Beal has played a role in Washington's lapse of production. Beal, who's arguably one of the top 3-point shooters in the NBA, has been sidelined the last seven games with a stress reaction in his right leg and could get back to work against what should be an easy opponent in Philadelphia Friday night.

The Wizards didn't seem to miss Beal when he started the season on the bench with a wrist injury, and now they need him more than ever.

Friday, though, is a game Wall must take over from the tip. He obviously believes in what Wittman is trying to convey because he was on fire through the first 46 games. It's just a matter of time to make the proper adjustments and create space in what has been a congested path to the rim.

"Coach does a great job making his decisions," Wall said. "We trust in whatever decisions and whatever substitutions he wants to make. We just got to go out there and compete with the five that's on the court. It's not him that's going to make us play better. He's making the right calls."

Wizards guard Garrett Temple said teams are clogging up the middle more, making it difficult for Wall to penetrate and get his numbers. Temple shouldered some of the blame for not doing a better job of making baskets.

"Us perimeters, we got to do a better job knocking down shots for him (Wall)," Temple said. "But I don't think it's just spacing. In general we're not executing as well as we need to, and that goes with all five of us on the court."

Washington has lost six in a row on the road and hopes to have veteran forward Paul Pierce back on the floor. Pierce, who is third on the Wizards with 12.6 ppg, is dealing with a bruised knee and hopes to play soon. He scored a team-high 25 points in Tuesday's 114-107 loss to Golden State.

There's no doubt the Wizards will make the playoffs, but they're losing out on a chance for home-court advantage and earning one of the higher seeds. The upcoming schedule won't be easy with matchups against Detroit, Chicago, Miami, Milwaukee, Memphis, Sacramento, Portland, the Los Angeles Clippers and Golden State over the next 13 games.

The Wizards are a good team, a formidable bunch in what has been an improving conference. They've just fallen on hard times and need to re-discover what led them to that strong start a month back.

"It's tough times right now. Tough times," Wittman said. "It's easy to look at it like that and put your head down, but we have to fight through it."