The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Wes Unseld Jr.’s return to Denver quickly goes sideways as the Wizards’ skid continues

What to know from Monday night’s 113-107 loss to the Nuggets

Wizards center Montrezl Harrell looks to pass as Nuggets forward Zeke Nnaji defends in the first half Monday in Denver. (David Zalubowski/AP)

DENVER — Wes Unseld Jr. clapped as he paced the same sideline where he sat as an assistant for six years Monday night, urging his Washington Wizards to stay in the fight. The coach’s return to Denver, where he turned the Nuggets’ defense into one of the more fearsome in the NBA and helped shape reigning MVP Nikola Jokic’s game, was an uglier homecoming than he would have liked.

The final score was misleading. So unsightly was most of Washington’s 113-107 loss, its fifth in six games, that backup forward Davis Bertans was the only Wizards player in double figures with five minutes left in the third quarter — by which time the Nuggets led by 33.

They had been to the foul line more than three times as often as the Wizards. Washington’s top players — starting guards Bradley Beal and Spencer Dinwiddie and backup center Montrezl Harrell — had combined for all of 13 points.

Unseld’s old pal Jokic, meanwhile, was effortlessly mowing his way through the visitors before getting ejected midway through the fourth quarter after being assessed a double technical. He left one assist shy of a triple-double with 28 points, 19 rebounds and nine assists.

“Our offense didn’t click, I thought we were once again generating open shots, and we start the game 3 for 15 from three. That’s demoralizing," Unseld said. "It’s frustrating when you’re able to create the offense you’re looking for, and you don’t get the payoff. So there was a lot of frustration with that, and I thought it affected our efforts and energy, our focus on the other end.”

To open a four-game road trip that next takes them to Sacramento on Wednesday, the Wizards continued their confoundingly poor play compared with the start of the season. Denver was a significant test because of the added meaning with Unseld’s return and the coach’s familiarity with the opponent. Washington didn’t just fail; it didn’t even make it to the exam.

Old, bad habits were present and accounted for. The Wizards fell into a double-digit deficit in the first quarter again, and when he checked in at the beginning of the fourth, Dinwiddie, who Unseld has repeatedly said needs to be more aggressive, was 1 for 3 from the field.

Washington didn’t guard well or consistently and sent Denver to the free throw line far too often. Poor defense let the Nuggets shoot 46.8 percent, and with Jokic manning the paint, they dominated the boards.

Jokic led four players in double figures even with his truncated night — the big man took issue with the officiating midway through the fourth quarter and, after a brief run-in with Dinwiddie, was ejected for the second time this season. Monte Morris added 22 points.

Bertans led the Wizards with 21 points, including five three-pointers, and Beal worked his way up to 19 points late, after Washington’s fate was sealed.

Here’s what to know from Monday’s loss:

Last time out: Wizards get run off their home floor in the second half against the Jazz

Coronavirus precautions

After a staff member became the second person in the organization to test positive for the coronavirus, following forward Kyle Kuzma, the Wizards did not hold their usual morning shoot-around in accordance with the NBA’s health and safety policies, Unseld said.

Neither Kuzma nor forward Rui Hachimura traveled with the team to Denver. Kuzma remains in the coronavirus protocols but continues to feel well, according to his coach, and Unseld is hopeful that after a series of negative tests Kuzma will be able to join Washington in the latter stages of this four-game road trip.

Hachimura, who is still preparing for his season debut, stayed behind in Washington because the team was unsure if it would be able to practice at all this week. The NBA announced its first two postponements of the season Monday as the Chicago Bulls face an outbreak.

“With that in mind, we said, ‘Well, it’s probably a waste to bring him if we can’t practice,’ ” Unseld said. “Let him practice and work out back at home with the [Wizards’ G League affiliate] and at least get some reps and get up and down.”

Unseld’s return

Unseld’s time as a Nuggets assistant meant he had friends, former neighbors and old co-workers greeting him upon his return. But his official welcome-home party came when both teams took the court Monday — in the form of a 6-foot-11, 284-pound man hurling himself into the coach’s arms.

“I think he was trying to take me out,” Unseld said of his on-court reunion with Jokic. “… I asked him not to play. He declined.”

Unseld didn’t return empty-handed — he brought with him to Denver a familiar-looking defense and play-calls that Coach Michael Malone poked fun at before the game.

“I told our players this morning, if there’s any confusion on their play-calls, we’re in trouble,” he said. “… I’m so happy for Wes. They got off to a great start, going through a tough time right now; he’s the guy to get them through that.”

Naturally, Malone said he sees similarities between Denver and Washington on the defensive end, where Unseld led the Nuggets for his final few years with the franchise.

“That happens. There are things that we run that I may have learned from Jeff Van Gundy or Mike Brown or Monty Williams. Wes has been a part of this for six years, and it’s worked,” Malone said. “… Now, granted, he is his own man; he is his own coach. They’ve been great in clutch situations this year — that is Wes Unseld showing everybody he’s a hell of a coach in late-game situations.”

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What to read on the Washington Wizards

Beal gets the max: The 29-year-old guard agreed to a maximum contract that will cement him as the cornerstone of the franchise. Only in Washington do NBA stars get $251 million participation trophies, writes Candace Buckner.

Wes Unseld’s first season: Players praised the coach’s even keel. But the defense was still bad.

Offseason needs: Securing Bradley Beal’s future is at the top of the organization’s to-do list. Finding a permanent solution at point guard is No. 2 on the Wizards’ offseason checklist.

Candace Buckner: Forget the excuses about lineup disruption, chemistry issues brought on by the massive trade-deadline makeover and Bradley Beal’s season-ending injury. The Wizards took a step back this year.

Peace for Kristaps Porzingis: The big man called Washington the “perfect place” to help him reach his career goal because of the Wizards’ mix of young and veteran players.

Kyle Kuzma’s fashion game: What started as a desire to look sharp became part of his identity when he was drafted with the 27th pick in 2017 and he moved to Los Angeles.

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