The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

With another coach pressed into action and Bradley Beal back on court, Wizards fly past 76ers

Joseph Blair, left, was the Wizards' acting coach Monday, and guard Bradley Beal returned to the lineup. (Nick Wass/AP)
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The Washington Wizards debuted their third coach of the season Monday — this one, Joseph Blair, is a former Harlem Globetrotter — so naturally, the offense sang.

Blair patrolled the sideline after previous acting coach Pat Delany entered the NBA’s coronavirus protocols (after Coach Wes Unseld Jr. entered the protocols Friday). But Bradley Beal was back. Thomas Bryant found his shot. And Kyle Kuzma has caught fire since the last time the Wizards played the Philadelphia 76ers.

The ball moved with power and precision, and Washington (23-21) took great care to not waste its possessions in a 117-98 win against Philadelphia. It had just six turnovers entering the fourth quarter, and though it still couldn’t find a defensive solution for Joel Embiid after throwing a trio of centers at him, limiting the rest of the 76ers’ offense helped plug the dam.

“This was one of our better wins of the season,” Kuzma said.

Beal, who returned Monday after missing three games in the coronavirus protocols, was one of the more impressive elements even with seven players in double figures.

The guard set the tone for a tight first quarter — in which the Wizards found good shots and went 15 for 24 from the field — and ended with 13 points, five rebounds, six assists and one noteworthy block of Tyrese Maxey in the first quarter that let the afternoon crowd know he was back in earnest.

Backup center Montrezl Harrell led with 18 points and picked up critical fouls late to pad Washington’s lead. Bryant had 15 points on 6-of-11 shooting, by far his best effort after returning this month from an ACL tear. Kuzma had 15 points and 16 rebounds.

Embiid led the 76ers with 32 points and eight rebounds. Maxey (18 points) was their only other double-digit scorer.

“You look at the stat sheet and you see Joel had 32 points, but the effort put forth on him, I think that was a big thing, it was a team effort,” Blair said. “A lot of teams will get caught up in the me against him, me against him; I think tonight we understood it was us against them. … Whoever it was needed to come down and double was there to do it, and who needed to scramble did it.”

Here’s more to know from Monday’s game:

Garbage time for Avdija

Unseld promised players’ minutes would be changing as he figures out the team’s rotations with Bryant and Rui Hachimura back in the mix. Beal’s return shuffled things even more, and Deni Avdija, Aaron Holiday and Anthony Gill checked into the game for the first time with 2:44 left to play.

Davis Bertans did not play.

Blair said keeping Avdija out was no knock on the 20-year-old, who has become a lockdown defender for Washington in his second season as a pro. He just wanted to stick with a group that was working well against Philadelphia.

Benching Bertans was less of a surprise as the forward missed the previous game with a foot sprain and has shot inconsistently all season.

Kuzma’s revenge

One of Kuzma’s highlights was a second-quarter dunk on Embiid. Kuzma said he owed the towering center after trying to dunk on him during Kuzma’s rookie year, a memory he shared with Embiid after the play.

“He came up to me after I told him that,” Kuzma said, laughing, “and told me if I did that again he would punch me in the face.”

Early fouls for Gafford

Daniel Gafford struggled mightily the last time Washington hosted Philadelphia, and Monday appeared off to a similar start after the first half.

The big man picked up three fouls in five minutes in the first half trying to guard Embiid before Blair tapped Bryant to check in — going with Bryant over Harrell at Harrell’s suggestion.

“I just wanted to keep TB with him at that point in time because TB pops a little bit more than me, so it’s about spacing the floor on the offensive side of the floor and keep him honest on the defensive end,” Harrell said, referring to Bryant’s perimeter shooting.

Bryant had nine points in eight minutes before halftime, including a smooth jumper at the buzzer to end what was a stellar first quarter of offense for Washington.

Gafford picked up his fourth foul one minute into the third quarter.

Blair takes the lead

Delany had a day to prepare before coaching his first NBA game. Blair found out he’d be stepping in to lead the team at 9:40 a.m., less than five hours before tip-off.

“So as you can imagine it’s been quite a whirlwind of a day; I didn’t wake up expecting this situation to occur, but I don’t think any of us went into this season expecting what’s happened this season,” Blair said in a pregame news conference. “ … Here I am, and this situation is what it is; we’re a team, we’re going to stand as a team, we struggle as a team, we win as a team, we lose as a team, and here we are.”

Blair was hired to Unseld’s staff this summer and has head coaching experience from his one season leading the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, the Houston Rockets’ G League affiliate, in 2018-19. After that, the 47-year-old was hired as an assistant for the 76ers before joining the Minnesota Timberwolves in the same role.

Blair’s playing career sets him apart from many of his peers in the NBA. He spent four years at Arizona — starting on the 1994 Wildcats squad that advanced to the Final Four — before he played professionally overseas for years.

In Washington, Blair has primarily focused on the offense along with assistant coach Zach Guthrie. But he’s known most for his booming voice and consistently high energy, something Harrell has appreciated since the pair worked together in the G League. It was the center who doused Blair with water after the coach’s first NBA win.

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