The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Wizards go down in flames as a 35-point lead disappears in a 116-115 loss to the Clippers

What to know from Tuesday’s shocking loss at Capital One Arena

Clippers guard Luke Kennard celebrates his three-pointer in the final seconds Tuesday night. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

It was barely midway through the second quarter Tuesday night when Wes Unseld Jr. caught Bradley Beal jogging back downcourt and pulled him in for a handshake and a laugh. After a trying stretch of three straight losses, both the guard and his coach looked at ease.

By late in the fourth quarter, Unseld’s smile had melted into a scowl. And when Luke Kennard was fouled while making a three-pointer that tied the score with 1.9 seconds to play, the faces of spectators at Capital One Arena had gone beyond scowls and morphed into disbelief.

After Kennard gave his team the lead at the line, the Washington Wizards’ 116-115 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers drew nothing but boos from the crowd. Washington somehow had managed to lose after leading by 35 points in the second quarter. According to Elias Sports Bureau, the NBA’s statistician, that tied for the second-largest comeback in the NBA’s play-by-play era, which dates from 1996-97. The Utah Jazz erased a 36-point deficit to beat the Denver Nuggets in 1996.

“Something’s got to change, I don’t know,” Kyle Kuzma said, with his eyebrows raised and a shake of his head. “It’s pretty comical at this point.”

“We stopped playing,” Unseld said. “We had a good rhythm, we were playing well, and I think we thought we had the win in the bag. We just stopped playing how we played to get to that point.”

The comeback dashed what would have been a much-needed win ahead of perhaps the Wizards’ most challenging stretch of the season.

After a three-day break, the Wizards (23-25) will face Memphis, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Miami and Brooklyn. The 76ers are the only team in that group sitting outside of the top four in their conference.

Washington will enter that gantlet having lost four in a row and five of six.

Asked if he agreed with Kuzma’s assertion that something must change in Washington, Beal huffed a short laugh.

“Yeah. Yeah,” Beal said. “But we’ve got to fix some things, for sure.”

In the beginning Tuesday, everything looked easy. The Wizards started with a 9-0 run and rolled from there, working their way to a 66-31 advantage late in the second quarter and a 66-36 edge at halftime. That 30-point difference was their largest halftime lead of the season, and it came against a Clippers team without Kawhi Leonard (ACL recovery), Paul George (elbow tear) and Marcus Morris Sr. (personal reasons).

But as is too often the case in Wizards games, the second half was a different story. After they eased up on defense and Amir Coffey got hot, the Clippers had narrowed the gap to six points thanks to a Kennard three with nine seconds to play.

Following a timeout, Washington was assessed a five-second violation on an inbounds play and turned the ball over. Kennard hit another three, and Beal fouled him on the release.

“It’s embarrassing, there’s no other way to put it,” Beal said of the loss.

It was only because the Clippers missed a few good looks at three-pointers early in the fourth quarter that Washington maintained control for as long as it did — until Coffey hit back-to-back buckets to get the Clippers (24-25) within 105-99 with less than four minutes to play.

“It was real easy for them,” Unseld said. We gave them life, allowed them to stay in it, they made big plays late.”

Beal led seven Wizards scorers in double figures with 23 points and had nine rebounds and six assists. Kuzma added 19 points and 12 rebounds.

Coffey led the Clippers with 29 points on 10-for-21 shooting. Kennard had a whopping 25 points off the bench, making five three-pointers.

Here’s what else to know from Tuesday’s shocking loss:

First-half highlights

The Clippers’ 36 points in the first half were the fewest a Wizards opponent had scored in any half this season and the lowest-scoring first half they had allowed in three years. The 35-point lead late in the second quarter was their largest of the season.

Sticking to the plan

Even when Washington was clearly losing control in the fourth quarter, Unseld kept starter Daniel Gafford on the bench. Gafford had 12 points in 12 minutes Tuesday and made the most of his early minutes by scoring 10 points and pulling in two rebounds in less than 6:30 of the first quarter before being subbed out for Thomas Bryant.

“He had a good stretch early; I didn’t like his stretch to start the third. … But collectively, from 1-10, myself included, this is embarrassing,” Unseld said. “We cannot let this happen. Cannot happen. An 80-point half, [19] turnovers for 23 points, game on the line.”

Washington is taking great care to reintegrate Bryant, who recently returned after tearing his ACL last season, and Rui Hachimura, who spent months away from the team for personal reasons, on a minutes restriction that has both on the court for shorter bursts than they otherwise might be.

Unseld was asked before the game when Bryant and Hachimura will be able to play normal minutes and if that might help balance the rotation.

“Hopefully soon. Once again, we have to kind of go upon the advice of the medical team — see where they are, see where they respond,” Unseld said. “Hopefully it’s no issues for TB coming off a serious injury, but once we kind of get clearance, it allows us to make some decisions and move forward.”

Unseld declined to elaborate on what is required to gain clearance to deploy both players normally.