The Wizards (5-14) split four games this past week, winning against Brooklyn and Miami. But even in their best start, during a tight victory against the Heat on Wednesday, they merely held steady in the opening minutes. In its past four first quarters, Washington has been outscored 152-109.
On Friday in Miami, Washington trailed by 13 after the first quarter and fell into a 28-point hole by the end of the first half against the same team it had defeated 48 hours earlier.
Coach Scott Brooks and team leaders Bradley Beal and Russell Westbrook haven’t landed on a firm explanation for the team’s poor starts. Brooks posited Friday that the first-quarter performance will improve as his players regain their rhythm following a two-week coronavirus pause.
But — aside from the general issue of poor defense, which left Washington helpless as Brooklyn made seven first-quarter three-pointers Sunday — the problem doesn’t appear to be wholly physical. On Tuesday at Capital One Arena against Portland and Friday in Miami, it was clear the Wizards were out of sorts mentally coming off big wins the game before.
“It was just a lack of energy, for whatever reason,” Beal said Friday after the Wizards allowed their opponent to score 40 in the first quarter for the second time in four days. “We didn’t come out with the same drive we had in the last game. Everybody was on the same page, attentive to detail, new personnel. Tonight, we let [Miami] bomb threes — and they’re not good at shooting threes. We couldn’t defend. On offense it was very stagnant, not a lot of passing [or] moving the ball. It was just kind of the complete opposite of the other night.”
As the Wizards continue to work their way back to full strength, their best chance at dictating the game is having fresh legs. Instead, they have been letting their opponents get comfortable and confident in the first quarter — especially from beyond the arc.
Washington has the second-worst defensive rating in the league. Its three-point defense sits 28th of 30 teams, allowing opponents to shoot 39.3 percent. But in the first quarter, the Wizards allow the opposition to shoot 47.3 percent from deep.
That type of showing puts a huge onus on the offense, which has been inconsistent. There is no doubt the Wizards can score, thanks in large part to Beal’s NBA-best 33.3 points per game. But if Beal has the rare poor game — as he did Friday, when Miami held him to seven points on 1-for-14 shooting — Washington looks hapless. Westbrook (13 points) and Rui Hachimura (12) were the only starters in double figures Friday, their contributions doing little to give the Wizards a chance.
Even when Beal was making shots, the Wizards relied on frantic, late-game closeouts to seal their comeback wins this past week. On Sunday, that meant scoring eight points in the final 8.1 seconds. On Wednesday, it required Heat guard Tyler Herro to miss what would have been a game-tying three-pointer in the final moments.
Brooks pointed out that those types of wins will drain a team that has 13 more games this month.
“We don’t have the luxury not to have a good start and come back,” he said, “like some teams in the league.”
Brooks chalked up Friday’s 122-95 drubbing in Miami to a lack of physicality at the start against a “prideful” team itching for revenge. The Wizards had an optional day of practice between games, didn’t have to travel — or get to leave their hotel rooms much at all because of the NBA’s coronavirus restrictions — and talked beforehand about how the Heat would come out eager for a fight.
Still, Brooks said, mentally they flailed.
“We didn’t come out with the physicality that we knew we had to come out with [against] a team that we just beat,” he said. “It’s like a playoff series: That game you win, next game you’ve got to step up. You can’t rest and relax and enjoy the win and get happy with that win, and I think we did.”
The Wizards will play four games again this week: Sunday at Charlotte, Monday at Chicago and then home Wednesday against Toronto and Friday against New York. Another busy week — and more opportunities to solve their first-quarter woes.
“You’ve got to come out with a sense of urgency,” backup center Alex Len said Friday, “[and] play a little bit harder.”