WASHINGTON - Since the 76ers have been playing like dogs lately, it was appropriate that forward Elton Brand talked about leashes in the locker room after last night's game against the Wizards.
The Sixers (7-21) turned a solid, three-quarter effort into their 15th loss in 17 games by getting outscored 33-19 in the fourth quarter of a 105-98 loss to the Wizards (9-17) at the Verizon Center.
"It's different situations different nights," said a clearly dejected Brand after posting 18 points and 12 rebounds. "I don't think the offense let us down against the Clippers [a 112-107 overtime loss Saturday], we came back from a deficit. Every night we're coming back from a deficit, 12-points in the first quarter, double-digits every night. We fight back, we get a lead. The offense has to get us the lead, then the defense has to sustain it.
"We should have won this game. With all due respect and credit to them, they outworked us, pretty much their second unit. They got tip-ins. They out-energied and outhustled us. Our unit [the second unit], certain guys didn't box out, didn't rebound, wasn't tough and certain guys got a longer leash than others. They played longer and the mistakes were showing."
Certainly there was plenty of blame to go around, particularly in that final quarter when the Sixers committed seven of their 15 turnovers, made only six of 18 from the floor and allowed Gilbert Arenas to score 12 of his game-high 31 points.
"We had a horrible defensive fourth quarter," coach Eddie Jordan said. "Horrible, horrible. It didn't get good till we put Sammy [Dalembert] in the game and we got some stops, then we throw the ball away. I mismanaged one possession, I called for a foul when we were down three with a 10-second differential, so I made a mistake there too. But overall, horrible fourth-quarter defense."
What seems to be Jordan's biggest dilemma, and there are many, has to do with his big men. He likes Dalembert (10 points, six rebounds, two blocks in 17 minutes) for his defense, but can't, or won't, pair him with offensive spark Marreese Speights (nine points). What Brand may lack on the defensive end, he makes up for with toughness and tenaciousness on the defensive glass, while Speights is an obvious defensive liability.
Adding to the Sixers' woes was Arenas. Many people love the month of December for the obvious reasons, Arenas has a fondness for the month that far surpasses his affection for any holiday.
Going into last night's game, he had averaged 24.9 points and eight assists in 10 games this December. In the 61 December games prior to this year he averaged 26.1 points a game.
"Gilbert was very good driving the paint, we gave him too many layups," said Jordan. "Gil certainly was a catalyst driving the paint and it seems like when we don't have Sam in there, there's nobody who can defend the paint or the rim."
Entering that fourth quarter, Dalembert had played just 14 minutes, 15 seconds. He played under 3 in the fourth, when the Wizards sealed the Sixers fate.
So where was Dalembert?
"Elton and Marreese had it going a little bit offensively, so we were keeping the pace that way. You just hope that your guys can defend a little bit better because if we get to keep Marreese in the game and Elton in the game for offensive purposes and just keep emphasizing that you have to defend, you have to defend and you can get some stops. Then we have them in a really bad way offensively because we have a mismatch. They would have Antawn [Jamison] on Marreese or somebody smaller on Elton. That's what we were trying to get and it worked for a little while."
But not long enough, particularly in the final quarter when the Sixers defense showed all the resiliency of a loosely wrapped Christmas present in the hands of an eager child.
When Brand canned two free throws to tie the game at 90-90 with 5:45 remaining, the Sixers allowed the Wizards to make four of six shots for a 98-92 lead. The two misses were both corralled by Washington and eventually turned into a layup by diminutive guard Earl Boykins, who came off the bench for 18 points.
In that final 5:45, the Sixers committed four turnovers, leading to yet another disheartening loss.
"I always go back to our defense," said Willie Green (16 points, six assists) when asked what the team's biggest problem might be. "I think we've been scoring the ball well. It's frustrating not being able to make defensive plays down the stretch and stop guys. It was evident [last night]. We didn't do a good defensive job as a team, especially when Sam's not in the game. When Sam's in the game, he alters a lot of shots, blocks a lot of shots. We've got to do a better job, both perimeter and post guys."