INDIANAPOLIS -- Sometimes NBA coaching hurts so good.
Sometimes it just hurts.
Washington's Randy Wittman has seen a ball to the face (see a December win over the New Jersey Nets), road success, miserable free throw shooting, defensive highlights and the slings and arrows of critics who look at his losing career record (163-309 over five seasons with previous stops at Cleveland and Minnesota) and wonder, won't some Wizard big wig call George Karl?
Friday night's Indianapolis homecoming didn't quiet the critics. Not after the Indiana Pacers continued their season-long rampage with a 93-66 victory to show Bankers Life Fieldhouse is no place for Eastern Conference pretenders.
“They took us to the woodshed,” Wittman said. “We've got to learn from this. We've got to make plays.”
He paused outside the locker room. He peered through glasses at a box score that showed miserable 9-for-23 free throw shooting among other basketball sins that produced a season low for points, a season high for disappointment.
“It boils down to your 10 guys making plays,” he said.
This was not what Wittman expected when well wishers greeted him just before pre-game introductions. He's an Indiana University guy after being an Indianapolis Ben Davis guy, and victories were once as commonplace as breathing.
Now, not so much.
As a player he was good enough to earn a Big Ten MVP award while leading IU to a conference title. He averaged 7.4 points in 543 NBA games and if that's not Hall of Fame material, well, Don Mattingly can relate.
As a coach, perspective job security changes as often as the latest rumor and loss.
Wittman is on the hot seat (the 2-7 start produced a he's-out-the-door buzz). He coaches a hot team (the Wizards went on to win 5 of 6, and then 4 of 5). He gets the most out of his players. He doesn't get nearly enough. And sometimes he's just hot (yelling at an official to “stand up for your call!” on Friday night).
Through it all, Wittman has kept talent-challenged Washington in the playoff picture (it entered Bankers Life Fieldhouse having won six of its last seven road games for a 16-17 record), although given the Eastern Conference weakness (five teams with losing records would make the playoffs if the season ended today), that's not Phil Jackson stuff.
Still, if Wittman gets the battered Wizards (six players have missed time with injuries, including Bradley Beal, their second-best player, and forwards Al Harrington and Nene) into the playoffs, he likely gets a new contract.
Wittman coaches with the “us” approach, with the focus on team rather than individual. After a recent loss to the Raptors, he criticized the team's selfish play. Point guard John Wall disagreed, which reflects the uneasy harmony that can exist in professional sports.
No matter. Wall is Washington's best player (his 11 double doubles leads all Eastern Conference point guards), and the defensive-minded Wittman (the Wizards rank among the NBA's better defensive teams) makes it work.
Just not on Friday night.
Wall was just 4-for-15 for 13 points against the Pacers' Paul George's relentless defense.
This was exactly what Indiana Pacers coach Frank Vogel wanted to see. George is the Pacers leading scorer. He's one of the NBA's leading scorers with a 23.0 average. But on this night he was 2-for-14 for eight points.
Big deal, Vogel said, pointing to George's 14 rebounds, six assists, one turnover and stellar defense.
“He dominated the game,” Vogel said. “Forget the 2-for-14. He dominated the defensive end. He killed on offense with the extra pass.”
This is the “sacrifice” Vogel has preached since preseason practice started. He wants a team so in tune with each other and its championship objective that individual glory has no relevance.
“We have individuals who can do great things,” Vogel said, “but we want to do great things as a team. Guys have to sacrifice.”
So they do. The Pacers have the NBA's best overall record (29-7) and best home record (18-1).
“They understand what we're going for and how to get there,” Vogel said. “It's all about the blue-collar work that goes into winning. That's why we have the record we do.”
And it's why Wittman's Wizards don't.