The Wizards were oh-so close to completing an improbable comeback, oh-so close to winning a game that they would have easily conceded, without much resistance, in the first half of the season. John Wall weaved around and tossed in a running floater that gave the Wizards a one-point lead with 6.8 seconds remaining and he received flying chest-bumps and high-fives as he headed to the bench.
The game was more about the bold statement Randy Wittman made to his team about what he isn’t willing to accept the rest of the season. The Wizards have lost 17 games by double digits, with nine coming on Wittman’s watch, and they were headed toward another lopsided defeat when the Bucks built a 22-point second-quarter lead. He benched JaVale McGee, Nick Young, and Trevor Booker at the start of the second half and sent a clear message to his players.
“Just that we can’t come out lackadaisical,” said Jordan Crawford, who started in place of Young in the second half and finished with 19 points. “I think we done had so many opportunities this year when we done been in the game and gave up the lead on some foolishness. I think he’s setting the tone early for these last 33 games and I think people are going to listen to him.”
Wittman sent the strongest memo to McGee, who didn’t play the entire second half after he fouled Milwaukee Bucks center Drew Gooden on a three-point attempt with one second left in the second period. Kevin Seraphin started the second half at center, but Wittman decided to go small with the 6-foot-8 Booker at center and the 6-foot-9 Singleton at power forward. Maurice Evans and Mason also alternated at small forward, spreading the floor for Wall to operate and become more of a threat with them making perimeter jumpers.
“It really wasn’t about our size. We played undersized. It was the size of our heart out there,” Mason said after scoring a season-high 14 points. “I think the group that was out there in the second half gave it all they had. I thought Chris Singleton was playing like a beast down there at the four. Mo gave us great minutes. The guys that played just brought energy. We played really hard. That’s how we got in the game.”
And that’s also why they stayed in the game. Wittman put Booker back in and he scored 16 of his season-high 20 points after the benching, setting screens and rolling to the basket for dunks or popping out for jumpers. He also put Young back at the start of the fourth quarter, but only gave him enough time to get a blocked shot and sat him the rest of the game.
“We played guys that wanted to play defense in the second half,” Wittman said. “I wasn’t going to go with anybody else. Somehow we have to break this thing of just coming out and playing.”
The Wizards played as if they were still in the all-star break in the first half, then played at a breakneck pace in the second half, outscoring Milwaukee 65-52 in the final two quarters. Wall had nine assists and his teammates buried nine three-pointers in the second half, with veterans Mason and Evans combining for three apiece.
“Give Randy credit for giving that group a chance,” Evans said after scoring a season-high 15 points. “A lot of these guys, I give them advice all the time, and I know they sometimes wonder, ‘What can he do when he gets out there?’ It was good to get out there and show guys I can still play.”
After using a 28-8 run to take an 81-79 lead in the third quarter, the Wizards fell behind by six, and later seven in the fourth quarter, but kept charging back. Booker nearly gave the Wizards a late lead but missed a point-blank layup. But instead of breaking down, they forced a turnover as Brandon Jennings dribbled the ball off his foot, setting up Wall’s potentially heroic runner in the lane.
Jennings missed a short jumper, but Ilyasova slid in to tip in the real game-winner. The final play was drawn up primarily for Crawford, but Wittman provided several options if the first read failed. And when Booker set the screen to free up Mason, Evans had no choice but to give him the ball. Mason saw Bucks reserve Mike Dunleavy charging, but took an extra step after pump-faking. After the game, Mason shared with Wall some stories of his previous game-winning shots when he was with San Antonio.
“The last time I was here, I was ready for a big game. I wasn’t in the books,” said Mason, who was left off the active roster the last time the Wizards were in Milwaukee. “Things like that happen.”
And Mason would rather have been in a spot to decide the game than not. The Wizards were missing veteran Rashard Lewis, who sat with a sore left knee, but Singleton more than picked up the slack, as he scored a career-high 16 points, doing most of his damage offensively in the first half. But when asked what upset him more, he said the poor showing the first 24 minutes far outweighed the breakdowns in the final 6.8 seconds.
“Because if we had came out right, we would’ve had a better ending to the game,” he said, as the Wizards simply ran out of time and took too many steps.
“I’m proud of them,” Wittman said of the players who helped lead the team back. “It shouldn’t have had to come to that. Everybody should take notice of that. All we’re doing, we keep preaching development. That’s fine. But if we go out and play that way, all we’re developing is bad habits and then somebody else will have to break them.”