Overall, the report card was good. Ball movement on offense was satisfactory, defense was up to par, and the Wizards established themselves as a physical team willing to be the aggressors against the Hawks.
But as everything seemed to be coming together for Washington at just the right time, the Wizards’ bench took a step backward – especially in the first half. The second unit looked discombobulated, couldn’t find their shots and gave up an 11-point first-quarter lead the Wizards didn’t regain until a three-pointer from Otto Porter Jr. gave them an edge early in the third period.
“I don’t think our bench did a good job in that first half,” Brooks said Sunday when asked about his rotation. “They did bounce back in the second half, played much better. Particularly [Kelly Oubre Jr.] and [Bojan Bogdanovic] did. Got the second opportunity. I think they took advantage of that.”
Washington’s reserves didn’t play like the group that helped turn around a once-dismal season. At halftime, Oubre (11 points) was the only backup who had scored, and he was 1 of 5 from the floor. The Wizards had been outscored by 14 points when the usually steady Jason Smith was on the floor in place of Markieff Morris, and the big man hadn’t even gotten a shot off by intermission. The dominant third quarter that all but spelled out a win for Washington was almost entirely of the starters’ design.
For Brooks, that’s a problem. He had spoken about keeping a shorter rotation in the days leading up to the playoffs, but especially after John Wall played like he did Sunday (32 points, 14 assists), managing starters’ minutes became more of a priority.
Brooks went to the bench with just under four minutes left in the first quarter and Washington up by nine.
“Well, we just needed to get a little bit of a break. In the first half – I don’t necessarily say this in a negative way – but we have to buy some time for John,” Brooks said of his point guard, who logged seven points and five assists in the 10:39 he played in the first quarter in Game 1. “John needs some rest. How much? I would love to play him 48 minutes, it doesn’t make sense. So he played 37 minutes, Brad played 39 minutes. I’m going to try to get those guys as much rest as I can, especially these first couple games.”
The bench made slight adjustments after halftime, with Oubre in particular finding enough focus to begin to deliver his usual energetic defense. But each backup still ended with a negative plus/minus. Aside from Oubre, Bogdanovic was the only other reserve who scored. He had four points on 2-of-8 shooting from the floor.
After a day to review, Brooks posited Monday that fouls had already slowed Washington’s first-quarter momentum by the time he went to the bench. He also couldn’t discount the live atmosphere at Verizon Center on Sunday, which he praised as being a large part of the win. But for first-time playoff contenders such as Oubre, there is something to be said for first-game nerves.
“Yeah, you know what, it is expected,” Brooks said of the slow start. “It’s the first game. It’s something we’ve worked on all season long, to work on our good habits, to make it come into effect in Game 1. The crowd was great, the building was live. That’s something that happens — there’s something to be said about that. And we relaxed.”
“I know that was my – excuse,” Oubre said Monday, reluctant to even use the word. “You just gotta go out there and know, let the game come to you. Don’t force anything. I think that’s what we did last night in the first half … [Brooks] just said that we gotta come out with fire from the get-go. We can’t take any plays off, we can’t let the game come to us, we gotta go out and get it. That was pretty much it on that topic. We pretty much got the memo once we lost the lead, the second unit, so we knew we had to pick it up.”
Both Oubre and Smith sat out Monday’s practice because of sore knees. Oubre said he has been dealing with lingering soreness for a while, and Kent Bazemore ran into Smith’s knee during the third quarter on Sunday. Smith walked off the court on his own, and in the locker room afterward said he could have gone back in.
Brooks stuck with his starter instead.
“They didn’t play like they’ve been playing. I believe in all the guys, and [the bench] is going to get plenty of more opportunities,” Brooks said. “In the playoffs, you know, the minutes are always reduced on the bench. But some guys will step up and play well.”