They were quiet after the win, as they should have been.
Once again, what should have been an easy night for the Wizards turned into high drama, again at their own hands. Instead of John Wall, just back from PRP injections, and Bradley Beal resting in the fourth quarter, they had to again expend major energy down the stretch against a vastly inferior opponent.
Washington blew a 15-point third quarter lead at home to the Clippers, down to the nubs of their roster with Blake Griffin and Danilo Gallinari and Patrick Beverley all out with injuries -- but who had just beaten the Wizards a week earlier in Los Angeles. With five minutes of paying attention to detail, playing real defense and Wall making winning plays down the stretch, the Wizards pulled away. But that meant nothing. It should have been a 30-minute game for Washington’s starters, not a 45-minute one.
“We always show these lapses, when we play great defense and we can be a good team,” Wall said. “And then we play against certain teams or just don’t show up certain days. If we want to be a team that gets past the second round, or even be a team that competes for a championship one day, we have to be able to do it consistently -- every day in practice and in the games, and don’t get bored with it.”
The Wizards aren’t floundering -- they were in fourth place in the topsy-turvy East before a Sunday loss to the Cavaliers dropped them down to eighth, not having yet played anything approaching their best basketball of the season. While Boston and Cleveland and Toronto have each had huge win streaks already, Washington’s longest streak so far this season is four.
But the Wizards are still displaying some of the maddening habits that have kept them from truly joining the conference’s elite teams the last few seasons.
“Same team for three years,” forward Markieff Morris said last week. “We’ve just been (bleeping) around. But we’re back. We’ve got five back. We’ve got Wall back. We’re going to get it turned around.”
The Wizards are playing with an indifference for their opponents and a regular season boredom that they have not yet earned. Not when the current core has yet to get past the second round of the playoffs after three tries in four years, including last year’s seventh-game loss to the Celtics in Boston. After each loss Washington has believed it was the better team, though it failed to prove it on the court.
“We had a little bit of success last year,” top reserve Kelly Oubre said, “and we come back this year and we think we’re already kind of hot. People humble us real quick, ‘cause they give us our best game, and we act like it should just be given to us. We’ve gotta learn, man.”
The numbers point to a team that plays up or down to its competition, something to which a veteran team like the Wizards should not be susceptible.
Washington’s beaten Detroit twice, split with the Raptors (including a win in Toronto without Wall) and Philadelphia, and won at Minnesota and Milwaukee. But the Wizards have inexplicably lost at home, where they were 30-11 last season, to lowly Dallas and Phoenix, the latter after leading by 21 points in the second quarter, as well as gagging a 20-point fourth-quarter lead in an insane loss to the TrailBlazers. They blew late leads against the Clippers and Lakers at Staples Center, and didn’t execute down the stretch in Brooklyn.
“It’s something we’ve been dealing with for a while now, a couple of years,” Beal said. “It’s still a learning experience but we should definitely be past it now. It’s something we should have down to the T by now. But we’re still growing as a team. We have a lot of work to do.”
Injuries and the resulting inconsistency from them can explain some of what’s dogged Washington -- but only to a point.
Last season, Washington’s starters were third in the league in points per game at 82.2, according to NBA.com/Stats; only Golden State and Minnesota got more out of their first five. And the Wizards’ starters were seventh in Offensive Rating. But this year, they’ve been plagued so far by slow starts, especially in the third quarter. (Otto Porter hasn’t been the problem; after getting a $104 million max offer sheet from Brooklyn that Washington matched last summer, the fifth-year forward is posting career highs in scoring, rebounds and assists, and is shooting 50 percent from the floor and 45 percent on threes.)
Wall, again, was slow to get going, even though he was healthy in the summer for the first time in years. This time, he developed inflammation in his left knee after a collision during the Mavericks game Nov. 7, and soon after opted for the PRP and viscosupplementation injections. On a minutes restriction for now, he says he’s come out of the first couple of games since his return without any pain or soreness.
“I feel great,” he said. “I just was fatigued. Drank a lot of water afterwards, ‘cause my lips kept getting white -- that means you’re out of shape.”
Beal hasn’t shot the ball as well as he did last year, and his 3-point attempts are down as teams load up on him. But he’s become a much better ballhandler and playmaker, utilizing Marcin Gortat -- still leading the league in screen assists per game at 33 -- just as Wall does to get to the rim. It’s a delicate balance Beal seeks, to become better and closer shots, but to still make defenses pay that suck in to stop Wall’s drives with threes.
Morris, who averaged 14 points and 6.5 rebounds last year, has struggled so far this season. He had sports hernia surgery in September, coinciding with a two-week trial in Phoenix with his twin brother Marcus; the brothers were acquitted of aggravated assault charges stemming from an incident in January, 2015 in which a man was beaten up outside a high school basketball game. Two other men pled guilty to assault charges in the case in September; another man was also acquitted of assault charges along with the Morris brothers.
If we want to be a team that gets past the second round, or even be a team that competes for a championship one day, we have to be able to [play great defense] consistently -- every day in practice and in the games, and don’t get bored with it.”
Markieff Morris says the inactivity during what would have been final preparations for training camp, along with missing camp itself as he healed from the surgery, set him back physically going into the season. He missed last week’s game against Memphis with an ankle sprain and groin pull.
“For it being my first time, I honestly didn’t think it was going to be as tough as it was,” he said. “When I think about it, (bleep), I am playing against the best players in the world, on a nightly basis. So that part was getting to me a little bit. This (bleep) ain’t the same. But, now, I’m starting to get better. (Wednesday) I ran on the treadmill. I was pretty cool. I wasn’t winded. All the bumps and bruises and the nagging injuries, then coming back from the injury, all of that stuff played into it a little bit. I’m just trying to stay healthy.”
There are reasons for optimism going forward, though. The terrible losses in L.A. notwithstanding, Washington has at least completed both of its West Coast trips already, with nothing outside the Central Time Zone the rest of the season, and only one prickly road trip -- at Chicago, at Houston, at Cleveland, in early April -- the rest of the regular season.
The Wizards also still reside in the desultory Southeast Division; only Miami is currently within six games of Washington in the loss column, with Orlando fading quickly after a hot start, Charlotte riddled by injuries and Atlanta at the beginning of a rebuild. And while a division title no longer offers top-four seed playoff protection, beating up on their division foes would pad the Wizards’ record.
And, after last season, when Brooks had little faith in his reserves, and the Wizards had to cough up a 2018 first-round pick to Brooklyn to get the ill-conceived contract of Andrew Nicholson off their books, the Wizards again rebuilt their bench -- this time, at least so far, with better results.
Oubre ping-pongs between the starting lineup when either Porter or Morris have been out, but he’s been very good in reserve, getting on the glass (5.3 rebounds per game in 26 minutes) and improving his shot (37 percent on threes). Veteran Tim Frazier has been solid if unspectacular backing up Wall; the Wizards didn’t implode (5-6) with Wall out of the lineup, and also got a boost from combo guard Tomas Satoransky, who looks much more comfortable on the floor in his second NBA season. Jodie Meeks is shooting a career-worst 29.9 percent on threes so far, but he still requires defenses’ attention when he’s on the floor.
Washington’s best bench player, though, has been veteran forward Mike Scott, signed in September after a tryout. Frankly, the 29-year-old Scott didn’t have anywhere else to go after his four-plus years stint in Atlanta’s rotation came to an end last season; the Hawks traded him to Phoenix in February, and the Suns promptly cut him.
“The opportunity in Atlanta, it was over,” Scott said. “It was time. I don’t have any hard feelings. I think I sucked.”
He sucked, in part, because he had ballooned up to 268 pounds in his last year there. Hanging over his head at the time were felony charges stemming from a July 2015 arrest of Scott and his brother by Georgia police. At the time, police said they found marijuana and the drug MDMA in the car in which the Scott brothers were driving.
But in May of this year, a judge ruled that the brothers were subjected to racial profiling, which led police to stop their car, and that there was no probable cause that would have otherwise led police to the car. (The police officer who arrested Scott had a history of targeting people of color in his arrest record, and was subsequently fired by his department.)
Scott stayed in Atlanta last summer, shedding the pounds with personal trainer Ray Grayson -- aka, Mr. “Shut Up and Train” -- and basketball coach Mark Edwards, who got 30 pounds off his frame, worked on his handle and helped him get his head straight -- he had, in his words, “sulked” after the trade and being unable to catch on elsewhere.
“It was three months of just hard work, twice a day, five days a week, sometimes six days a week,” Scott said. “…The sulking came from not knowing what was going to happen off the court. That was the most part. I’m just very grateful I got a second chance. This organization gave me another opportunity. I’m very grateful. It’s why I got out there and play, no matter how good I play or how bad I play, I’m just grateful. I could have been out (of) the league.”
Scott has come back with a flourish, averaging almost nine points a game off the bench in 18.5 minutes, shooting a ridiculous and almost certainly unsustainable 57.2 percent from the floor, including 42.3 percent on threes. He’s scoring in the post, he’s scoring in transition and he’s scoring behind the arc.
And with Ian Mahinmi much more active and effective as a defensive anchor, the Wizards’ bench is more than four points better in Defensive Rating (103.5) than it was last season, when it was a sieve that blew leads the starters had created. Now, the opposite is often true: the bench has gotten back deficits left by the starters.
And one can’t help but think the Wizards may be holding some small ball lineups in abeyance, not wanting opponents to see too much too early. They showed one version off Sunday against Cleveland, with Morris playing the five in the fourth quarter ahead of Gortat, with Scott at the four and Oubre at the three (Porter missed the game with a hip injury).
“Me and Mike at the five, Kelly at the four, I think so,” Morris said. “That’s the league now. When it’s needed, I think we match up with the best teams playing small ball. We go over it a lot. We practice it a lot. And I think it’ll be successful for us down the road. We’re not showing it a lot. We’re showing a little at a time.”
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