The Washington Wizards have noble pursuits. They view ‘tanking,’ as a dirty word and everyone from the majority owner to the all-star shooting guard has publicly stated a refusal to cheat the fans, city and themselves by losing with a purpose the rest of the season.
Despite having the starting lineup they expected ravaged by injuries, the Wizards, prideful and a touch Pollyannaish, want to win. Even more, they want to make the playoffs.
Saturday night’s contest against the Milwaukee Bucks offered a glimpse of the what could be if the Wizards accomplish their honorable quest. But if the 131-115 loss to the team with the best record in the NBA was a preview of April attractions, there is ample cause for concern.
Inside the Wizards’ sullen locker room, Bradley Beal spoke in the low mumble that he reserves for particularly stinging losses.
“We’ll be all right. We’ll be all right. We got one on Monday,” Beal said, only looking forward to the next game against the 17-win Atlanta Hawks.
“The playoffs aren’t here yet,” Beal said. “That was definitely a message they were sending. We play them again next week. That’s how I take it: they sent a message for next week.”
The Feb. 6 rematch in Milwaukee is about as far as Beal would look. Tomas Satoransky shared similar views, wanting only to focus on the present state of the Wizards (22-30), 2½ games behind Miami for the No. 8 seed, and the upcoming calendar.
“Our goal is to go game to game and try to make the playoffs first,” Satoransky said. “Then, we’re going to look [at] who we’re playing against. But right now, this is not on our mind.”
Blowouts like Saturday night have a way of encouraging tunnel vision. But in the wider picture, the Wizards have already stamped this season as playoffs or bust, a binary that majority owner Ted Leonsis affirmed last week in a radio interview by sharing that his “expectations are we are going to make the playoffs and improve on last year.”
So, try as they might to look only as far as the next game, the Wizards still have an organizational mandate to achieve. And if the Wizards can scratch and claw their way up the standings, then this is what the eighth seed could look like: trailing by 32 points early in the third quarter, trying and failing to stop MVP candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo and drowning under a deluge of threes from a team that attempts the second-highest number of long-range jumpers in the league.
“We battled,” Coach Scott Brooks said after his Wizards allowed 130 or more points for the 11th time this season. “Not as good as it needs to be, but like I said we're playing against one of the best teams — if not the best team — in the league right now record-wise. They score, they score a bunch of points and they score in so many different ways.”
Milwaukee’s most reliable scoring method starts with the 6-foot-11 nightmare named Giannis. Although the Wizards threw multiple defenders at Antetokounmpo, he either bulldozed grown men out of their defensive stances for easy dunks or Euro-stepped his way past their futile footwork.
And when Antetokounmpo wasn’t toying with the Wizards for a game-high 37 points on just 10 made field goals, he was practicing his free throw shooting form. At one point in the third quarter, Antetokounmpo had swished in more free throws than any other Wizards player had scored in the game. He finished 17-of-17 from the line.
“It’s hard to keep Giannis out of the paint, but it takes a team effort,” guard Jordan McRae said. “I mean, he’s tough to guard anyway but when he shoots 20 free throws, it makes him even harder to guard.”
A potential first-round match up against Milwaukee would mean more than just being fodder in Giannis highlights. The Bucks love to shoot from deep and surpassed their season average in attempts by making 17 of 39 three-pointers, good for 43.6 percent from beyond the arc. To have a shot against a team like Milwaukee, the Wizards would have to make their threes but through three quarters on Saturday, they connected on only 5 of 21 attempts.
The game did not seem competitive, but the Wizards had their moments. Satoransky dunked over 7-foot center Brook Lopez early in the contest, Beal shot 1 of 5 from the outside but efficiently within the arc and finished with 24 points and Washington played one solid stretch of defense to trim the lead to 15 by the four-minute mark of the third quarter.
“All the lessons from it, I feel like we can play with them,” Otto Porter Jr. said, sharing what he learned from Saturday night. “Especially in a seven-game series.”
Near the end the game, however, Porter no longer played with the Bucks since the Wizards had to empty the bench. John Jenkins, who recently joined the team on a 10-day contract, played almost four minutes of garbage time. Rookie Troy Brown Jr. logged the same amount but could not escape without an injury. Following the game, Brown walked with a concerning limp as he went to have an X-ray on his left ankle. Later, he strapped on a walking boot and left Capital One Arena on crutches.
If only that was the extent of the Wizards’ pain.
Though the Wizards are somehow still close enough to be in the playoff discussion, they’re now eight games under .500 and a low playoff seed appears like a mirage. Even if the postseason picture comes into focus, the Bucks, or another elite team, will be waiting.
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