“Just defense. They made a lot of tough shots. But turnovers down the stretch, too,” Bradley Beal said, ticking off reasons for the Wizards’ 13th loss in 19 games. “I mean, we were shorthanded, but that’s not an excuse.”
Washington essentially played an eight-man rotation that relied heavily on Beal and asked little of the depleted bench. Beal played nearly the entire second half as he logged 42 minutes. Unleashed, he poured in 42 points by making 16 of 30 attempts. Davis Bertans chipped in 21 points, and Isaiah Thomas finished with a season-high 20 points to go with seven assists and five rebounds. But as a team, Washington grabbed 38 rebounds to Orlando’s 48.
“The elephant in the room, we know we’re small,” Beal said. “Can’t hide that, but the only thing we can do about it is go compete. Can’t make any excuse about it."
Rookie Rui Hachimura started and played 38 minutes in the five spot, providing respectable numbers (15 points, six rebounds) as the Wizards survived much of the game. They even erased an 18-point deficit and pulled ahead 75-74 with 8:14 left in the third quarter. After the Wizards used a Thomas jumper to pull within 83-81 with 4:39 left in the period, Orlando responded by breaking loose on a 21-7 run.
“I give our guys credit. They fought and they battled," Coach Scott Brooks said. "We took a one-point lead, then they went on a nice little run on some of our defensive lapses or a tough shot. Nothing to be ashamed of; we competed, and we gave everything we had. We just got to get a little better.”
And the Wizards could’ve used a little help — for instance, any of the three well-dressed centers at the end of their bench.
Bryant, who wore a walking boot Tuesday, will miss at least the next three weeks to recover from a right foot stress reaction. The team announced Bryant was evaluated following Sunday’s loss at the Los Angeles Clippers, but he said he has been dealing with the issue for longer than that.
“I noticed it for a few days, but I really noticed it playing the Clippers,” he said. “There’s really not a play I can really pinpoint on. I just knew that in the Clippers game and also the Lakers game [Friday] and the game before that I was really hurting.”
As Bryant joined the injury list, Wagner tried to return but was sidelined for his second straight game with a left ankle sprain.
“I give Moe a lot of credit. That guy has been battling the last two days and all day long. He’s working our performance staff overtime. He wants to be on the court. And he fought all day. That’s a sign that I love about him,” Brooks said. “He’s a winner. He wanted to fight. He knows we’re down, but we can’t put him out there until he’s ready.”
Mahinmi, who has not played this season, sat out again while recovering from an Achilles’ injury. Brooks said Mahinmi has reached the “final stages” of his rehabilitation but did not provide a timeline for his return.
Without a traditional center, the Wizards played the only way they could: small. Still, Brooks had his limits.
“I don’t think I’m going to go that far,” Brooks said when asked whether he would play Thomas, a 5-foot-9 point guard, at center.
Brooks tried to be creative in other ways. Rookie Admiral Schofield, who played small forward in college, worked some minutes as Hachimura’s backup. At 6-10, Bertans found himself protecting the paint as often as he filled his natural role shooting three-pointers. And Beal transformed into a juiced-up version of himself. Already carrying the team as its top scorer, facilitator and all-around best player, Beal started the game on a singular mission. Moments into the Wizards’ first possession, he fired his first shot. He spent the rest of the first quarter focused on short-range jumpers and drives to the rim.
“I told Brad this is going to be another challenge and great opportunity,” Brooks said. “I want him to be aggressive from the start, keep making plays for others but also look for self at a higher level than he has.”
Beal hunted throughout the first half and helped the Wizards stay competitive, posting 22 points on 9-for-16 shooting with just one assist. That aggression didn’t always work in his favor. Early in the fourth quarter, Beal tried to clear room against his defender, Michael Carter-Williams, and made contact with his face. Carter-Williams left the game with a bloody nose, and Beal’s foul was upgraded to a Flagrant 1.
Beal remained on the floor until 1:37 remained as the Wizards kept close enough to contend, even as Orlando lit up the scoreboard. Four Magic starters finished in double figures — including former DeMatha star Markelle Fultz, who had a career-high 20 points.
Still, merely staying close while shorthanded against the Magic (9-11) did not satisfy the Wizards.
“I mean, if that’s what we’re in it for, then I guess,” Thomas said when asked about players being content with competing, in light of the team’s injury circumstances. “We just got to play better. We got to play better for a full 48 minutes. We showed signs that we competed, but we’ve got to put it all together and hopefully we’ll be ready on Thursday [against the Philadelphia 76ers].”