Wednesday night’s double-overtime loss to the San Antonio Spurs took a lot out of the Washington Wizards, both physically and emotionally, and Coach Randy Wittman decided to give his starters a light recovery day of mostly treatment at practice while letting his reserves scrimmage on Thursday.
That provided an opportunity for forward Al Harrington — who hasn’t participated in any five-on-five workouts since having knee surgery two months ago — to dominate with an impressive offensive explosion, according to observers. But it also meant Bradley Beal would have to wait for the court to clear so he could continue to put up shots with assistant coaches defending and contesting with a shot-blocking dummy. Then, after his workout, Beal engaged a 9-year-old fan named Grant Ettinger in a game of H-O-R-S-E.
“I think what our team does a great job of, we don’t take any days off from working,” Beal said after practice. “We may have rest days, but we still have guys getting shots and working on their game and improving as best as we can and I think that’s what’s making us play at such an elite level.”
Though they came up short against the Spurs, the Wizards don’t want to dismiss how much their play has improved in recent weeks, resulting in quality wins over Miami, Oklahoma City, Portland, Chicago, Phoenix and Golden State. But maintaining that same focus has been a challenge, as Washington has lost to Boston, Detroit, Milwaukee and Cleveland at home this season.
On Friday, Washington hosts the struggling Cavaliers, who have lost six in a row — including five by double digits. Cleveland fired General Manager Chris Grant on Thursday, one day after a 119-108 loss to a Los Angeles Lakers team that only had five healthy players at the finish, including one who was allowed to play after committing six fouls.
“That’s still bitter for us. I think we lost nine, 10 games like that at home,” Wizards point guard John Wall said when asked about the 103-96 overtime loss to the Cavaliers on Nov. 16, when the Wizards blew a 15-point first-half lead and allowed all-star point guard Kyrie Irving to score a season-high 41 points. “Every team like that is dangerous, because those are the teams that are coming out with a chip on the shoulder and they definitely want to get a big win or get a win and it wouldn’t be bad to come in and play against a team that’s playing at the highest level we’ve played this season and winning games. We know they are going to come in and play basketball. These are the games you have to win if you want to be a playoff team.”
Wittman told his players that playing the Cavaliers was probably the biggest game of the season, because a win could be more of an indication of how much the team has grown.
“You don’t want to have a hangover from a game that went down to the wire like it did in double overtime. You want to make sure you bounce right back and keep, maintain, the level of play we’re at,” Wittman said. “Our energy, our effort, those things were all there [against the Spurs]. It’s just the little things in terms of maintaining the consistency of our concepts of what we’re doing defensively, slipped a little bit. And good teams make you pay when you do that.”
Aside from some defensive lapses that resulted in surrendering a 17-point first half lead, the Wizards were also forced to confront another problem against San Antonio. When the game went into overtime, Beal became a spectator because he had already met his minute restriction, which has been raised to 34 minutes from 30 over the past three games. The medically prescribed benching to help Beal recover from a stress injury in his right fibula concluded what was already a strange night for the 20-year-old shooting guard, who had to complete concussion protocol after absorbing a hard foul from Tim Duncan in the third quarter. He finished with 19 points.
“I think, now, I’ve accepted it more than I am frustrated, because I don’t want to seem like a selfish player and think that I have to be out there in order for us to win,” Beal said of the playing time restriction that he has had to deal with since returning from a nine-game absence on Dec. 16. “My teammates are still great. There are still other great guys out there who can do just as well as I can. I’m not going to sit here and say, ‘If I was in there, we would’ve won.’ I’m not going to say that, but at the same time, I do wish I was still out there.”
When asked if he could nudge Wittman to give him a few more minutes, Beal said: “It has nothing to do with coach. I try to do that all the time. It’s all on the docs and the trainers. At the end of the day, they’re looking out for my best interests and hopefully over the course of these next few games, it’ll go up.”
Beal wasn’t the only player disappointed by what transpired at the end of the game against the Spurs.
“We’re all upset. We know we had a chance to beat the three best teams in the Western Conference and we felt that we gave that game away,” Wall said. Wittman “gave us, kind of the day, to get our minds back right and get back into a rhythm that you like. . . . This is the first time, we’re at a winning point of the season this early. We usually always wait until we go on a seven-, eight-game winning streak at the end of the season just to get 25, 26 wins. To be at that margin now is pretty good. But we’re not satisfied. We know where want to be and the biggest thing is to take it one game at a time and to try to be over .500 going into the all-star break.”