“It’s the art of coaching: You understand when you have to give them the hug and when you have to push them a little harder,” Brooks said Saturday. “I do both, because what we want to get to, it’s not going to be easy. What we want to get to, we can’t always give them the sunshine outlook. You’ve got to give them real facts.”
The reality of Sunday’s loss to the Thunder was not pretty. The Wizards (24-46) looked flat from the outset, missed their first seven shots and fell into a 15-point deficit from which they never recovered. They shot 41.3 percent from the field — their worst mark yet in the bubble — made 9 of 36 three-pointers (25 percent) and allowed Oklahoma City to glide up and down the court cherry-picking open looks.
Though he scored just 13 points, Chris Paul was the game’s maestro, tugging Washington’s defense this way and that, dishing a game-high nine assists and setting a defensive tone that spooked the Wizards into submission. The Thunder (43-26) hardly missed center Steven Adams, who sat out with a left leg contusion, or backup Nerlens Noel, who was out with right ankle soreness.
Darius Bazley (23 points), Danilo Gallinari (20) and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (18) made up for their absence.
The Wizards, meanwhile, could hardly get any offense going, missing looks even when they were wide open.
“That physicality at the start of the game bothered us, put us back on our heels, and we played timid. You do that, it’s like blood in the water,” Brooks said, noting he thought Washington’s effort improved as the game went on.
Jerome Robinson led the team with 19 points off the bench on 7-for-15 shooting, and Isaac Bonga led the starters with 14 points while adding eight rebounds. Troy Brown Jr., taking on even more duties at point guard than usual with Shabazz Napier out with a right ankle sprain, had 12 points, eight rebounds and four assists.
Moritz Wagner had his best game since the league restarted with 12 points off the bench.
But the main takeaway from Sunday’s loss was about tone-setting and recovering after a strong start from the Thunder. The Wizards have struggled with that throughout their time in the bubble, going through stretches in which their intensity lapses and opponents build leads.
Brooks called that tonal consistency part of being a pro, which he listed as one of the main areas he would like to see improve in the team’s final two games. It was a major focus of Washington’s two-hour film session Saturday before the Thunder game.
“One of the things I talked about — I even talked about it at halftime today — we can’t keep making the same mistakes over and over,” Brooks said Sunday. “I said, ‘Either you’re not understanding that or I’m not doing a good job of explaining,’ and yesterday we just went through detail to detail. They got it. We came out flat tonight. Their length, their quickness, their toughness bothered us those first 10 minutes and set the tone.”
Brooks is depending on veterans Ish Smith and Ian Mahinmi to help drill that point home without Bradley Beal, John Wall and Davis Bertans around to set an example every night. Smith is the only Washington starter with more than three years of experience in the league.
Smith said that with a pair of formidable opponents remaining on the schedule, he sees only opportunity for more growth. Sunday, for instance, Brown was able to glean something about physicality on defense just by being guarded by Paul.
“It’s such a good time for us, because everyone that’s here is trying to get to the playoffs,” Smith said. “This is a good thing for all of us, to show us the level you have to play at, the physicality you have to play with, the level you have to play at — not just to make it to the playoffs but to be a champion.”
The Wizards have a lot left to learn with just two games and a few days of practice remaining in the bubble.
“That’s the tough part: to figure out as a young team, as a young player, how to deal with that, how to move on,” Wagner said after practice Saturday. “Because life moves on, the season moves on, and you’ve got to keep getting better, keep finding that motivating part in yourself. I guess I’ll tell you the answer to that in 10 years, 15 years. And till then, I’ll try to figure that out.”