On Dec. 5, the Washington Wizards approached the quarter pole of the season as the third-worst team in the Eastern Conference, with a record of 6-12. As the night developed against the even more miserable Brooklyn Nets, things reached a new low.
The Wizards merely postured on defense as Brooklyn scored 66 first-half points. Scott Brooks grasped for any signs of a pulse, clapping for made jumpers like a junior-varsity coach trying to enliven his players. Energy dropped low and frustration ran high. The starting shooting guard walked back to huddles, shaking his head in disappointment over not getting calls. The starting power forward sulked over a lack of touches; his irritation seeped into his play as he picked up his fifth technical foul of the year.
The season never looked so bleak. When the first half ended, an angry group of guys in blue jerseys walked off the herringbone-patterned court and down a narrow corridor, facing a 15-point deficit to a team that entered with a 5-14 record. One by one, players entered the locker room and Brooks sensed the moment. He had been forced to light into his team before in this young season, and this time was no different.
“ ‘What are we going to do? Are we going to fold, or are we going to keep fighting?’ ” John Wall remembered from Brooks’s halftime message. “So basically, it’s: get ya head out ya ass and compete!”
Washington’s reversal from a 2-8 start to the season to winning 49 games and earning home-court advantage for a first-round playoff series that will begin Sunday against the Atlanta Hawks didn’t start with Brooks’s speech inside that room. The seeds were scattered in Oklahoma City at the start of the three-game road trip that concluded against the Nets, then watered at the second stop, San Antonio. But though it would still take several more nights for the Wizards to truly take form, something shifted on Dec. 5 at Barclays Center. Their stunning turnaround was beginning.
“I’ll tell you what: I love that road trip,” Brooks said. “That third quarter, I don’t think it changed our season but it established what we’re going to do.”
Oklahoma City, Nov. 30
In training camp, the Wizards never latched on to the narrative of bracing for a slow start. Though their situation — a new coach, eight new players and their point guard coming off surgery on both knees — would justify baby steps, the core returners had expected more. The early disappointment led to an impromptu team meeting before the trip. Inside the home locker room at Verizon Center, Brooks paused the video playing on the screen and gave an invitation: If anybody has anything to say, just get it out now.
The starters spoke up.
“Our leaders of our team were really fed up with the way we were playing early on in the season. There was a lot of frustration out there,” backup center Jason Smith recalled. “This was more of a meeting just to let things off our chest. It was good to get that out … because we had guys that needed to talk, and they talked.”
The way Smith remembers, it wasn’t just one starter. All five shared their unfiltered thoughts. While Washington’s starting group performed as one of the best in the NBA, the team as a whole was allowing 2.8 points more per 100 possessions than it was scoring. The starting unit, Smith said, was “not happy because they were doing their job.”
The meeting, however, did not spiral into finger pointing. No one cast blame or called out specific teammates. Instead, they wanted to remind each other how good they thought the team could be.
“We just got to believe in ourselves,” Beal expressed during the meeting. “Teams are coming after us. Teams are scared of us and we have to put that same fear into them while we’re on the floor and be confident.”
The message seemed strange for a losing team, but by the Wizards’ first extended road trip they had slightly improved to 6-10. Even so on Nov. 30, Wall sat inside Chesapeake Energy Arena and surveyed the large gathering of reporters for Brooks, who was returning to coach in Oklahoma City for the first time since he was fired as the Thunder’s coach in April 2015. Wall, who exudes as much confidence as anyone on the team, cracked a joke about Brooks’s popularity but slipped and said: “This is probably the most media attention he’s going to get unless we get to the playoffs.”
At that point, the Wizards’ postseason chances seemed remote. Later that night, Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook foreshadowed his historic season while Washington continued its bad habits. In the final four minutes of the fourth quarter, Washington lost a seven-point lead. Westbrook, who produced one of his NBA-record 42 triple-doubles of the season, tossed in the game-tying three-pointer, then scored 14 of his team’s next 21 points as the Thunder trounced Washington in overtime, 126-115.
The homecoming night for Brooks could have marked Washington’s first signature win on the road. Instead, the team slipped to 6-11, and the frustration boiled again.
San Antonio, Dec. 2
By the time the charter plane landed in Texas, the atmosphere had lightened. Though the losses could have fractured the team, players still enjoyed each other’s company and their bonding continued. Fourteen players, casually dressed in sweatsuits and hoodies, went to the AMC Rivercenter 11 in San Antonio and watched “Office Christmas Party.” The plot: when faced with the threat of his CEO sister closing his office branch, Clay Vanstone decides to rally the staff by throwing a huge party to land a huge client and save their jobs. A silly movie, for sure, but one that could have resonated with a team in need of a rally to save their season.
Instead, Washington could not come up with clutch defensive stops against the Spurs. Late in the game, the Wizards over-helped and allowed Danny Green to hit a three-pointer that gave San Antonio the 105-103 lead. After Wall tied the score with 19 seconds remaining, the team got burned at the end by an MVP hopeful for the second straight game. Kawhi Leonard nailed the game-deciding jumper to lift the Spurs the 107-105 win.
In Oklahoma City, frustration filled the postgame atmosphere because players knew they let one slip away. After the game in San Antonio, rage shifted to motivation. Coaches looked beyond the result and found encouraging signs when viewing the game as a whole.
“We still had enough grit and determination to come back after the Oklahoma loss,” Brooks said. “We didn’t win that game. So now we have an edge going into Brooklyn.”
Brooklyn, Dec. 5
Tony Brown, Brooks’s top assistant coach, was in charge of the scouting assignment on the Nets. Brown served as Brooklyn’s interim coach at the end of last season, and he knew that although the roster was constructed to win the lottery, the team nonetheless played as if their contracts depended on it.
Don’t underestimate them, Brown warned the Wizards. The Nets will play fast; they will play hard. They will play physical. Don’t fall into the trap.
“And that’s what happened,” Beal recalled.
“We lost to the Thunder in overtime and we thought we should’ve won that one. We felt like we should’ve won the Spurs game, for sure. We let that one go,” Beal said. “So we were really frustrated with [those] two, and we came and almost tricked this one off.”
Markieff Morris, with his perma-scowl and tough-guy exterior, should not be mistaken as pouty. But in the first half against the Nets, he played as if he was about to stomp off the court and blast emo music in his bedroom. He played 14 minutes before intermission, fewest among the Wizards’ starters, and was 1 for 4 from the floor. Morris had more fouls (three) than points (two) while his counterpart, Brooklyn’s Trevor Booker, outplayed him for 10 points on 5-of-8 shooting and five rebounds.
“I remember I was mad because I didn’t think I was getting that many touches and I felt like guys were forcing shots and just coming down on the other end and not playing defense,” Morris said. “And me just being mad because I wasn’t getting the ball.”
At halftime, things got heated. The Wizards have had their share of “adult situations,” as Brooks gently puts it, when effort and energy has necessitated a bit more of a colorful speech.
“My daughter wasn’t in the room, so I could speak freely,” Brooks would later joke, and with that liberty he went where other coaches hadn’t dared. He singled out Morris.
“I remember Coach saying something like my energy was low as hell. I ain’t doing s—,” Morris said. “I was mad as hell! ‘What?’ Coach and I have had it out a couple times. I was mad as s—, man. Sometimes you don’t see eye to eye but one thing for sure: If you challenge me, I’m up for any challenge.
“Coach says to players what normal coaches don’t say, but I guess that makes it better when you don’t hold no punches,” Morris continued, referring to the Spurs’ Gregg Popovich, arguably the most respected coach in the league. “To be more like a Popovich type of guy and get in your player’s asses when they’re not doing what they’re supposed to be doing.”
The challenge extended to the entire roster.
Are we going to fold, or are we going to keep fighting?
If the Wizards elected to fight, they finally would need to show up on defense.
The Wizards — though Morris used a saltier adjective to describe them — didn’t fold and “just started playing defense.”
Morris, who had preached selflessness and playing for another during that previous film-session meeting, rediscovered his energy. Morris played mad, setting the defensive tone throughout the third quarter. During that 12-minute stretch, the team collected seven steals, including four by Morris, and forced Brooklyn into 10 turnovers. The Nets’ three-pointers stopped raining, and their offense could muster only five field goals and 15 points. Morris nearly matched that total by himself with 12 points on 3-of-4 shooting from the field and six free throws.
By the end of the one of their best quarters of the season, the Wizards led 83-81, and they held off the Nets for a 118-113 victory. A seemingly forgettable night started the climb out of the conference gutter. Three days later, they began a 17-game home winning streak. They would ascend to third place in the conference, win their division for the first time in 38 years and complete the biggest turnaround from a 2-8 start in NBA history.
On Sunday, the fourth-seeded Wizards will enter Game 1 against the Hawks with soaring confidence. They found it during a road trip in late November.
“One thing I’ll say about this team: Nobody threw Coach under the bus. Nobody threw player under the bus. We all looked ourselves in the mirror and was like, ‘What can we do better about ourselves individually,’ and then we all worked as a team every day,” Wall said. “Then we started to have a stretch of a lot of home games when we started to win and win and win and finding a way to win a couple games on the road. I think that’s what built our confidence back, and then we were like, ‘We’re a pretty damn good team.’ ”