These Wizards would play hard, he would say, even if the results don’t match the effort. During a season-opening road trip that concluded Saturday night, Washington lived up to its coach’s expectations despite a 1-2 start to the season.
The Wizards fell, 124-122, to the San Antonio Spurs, a loss that continued a 20-year losing streak for the franchise in San Antonio. Still, the final score revealed a positive side to the young Wizards.
“We played hard,” Brooks said. “I thought our guys competed and gave ourselves a chance to win.”
Bradley Beal facilitated and scored to finish with 25 points and 11 assists.
Ish Smith let loose with speedy breakouts to the rim and shot freely in open space from within and beyond the three-point arc for a season-best 19 points. Rui Hachimura played with metronomic steadiness and disproved any notion of rookie nerves, recording 16 points to start his career with three straight games in double figures.
And then there was Davis Bertans, basking in adoration from Spurs fans after the team showed a tribute video, then making the home team wish it had never let him go. Bertans, a sharpshooter over three seasons to start his career in San Antonio, knocked down all seven of his shot attempts, including all five of his three-point attempts, for 23 points.
“I’m proud of the team, the way we battled all the way,” said Bertans, who made five shots during the fourth quarter. “There were some moments we could’ve gone down 10, 15, and we just came back and kept playing, and that’s what stood out to me the most.”
Although they were playing on the road on the second night of a back-to-back, the Wizards would not go away. The score fell into a tie 10 times in the fourth quarter, and the lead changed another six times. Only a DeMar DeRozan layup finally finished the Wizards.
LaMarcus Aldridge stonewalled Beal on a screen, allowing DeRozan to drive past center Thomas Bryant and get to the rim and score with 5.5 seconds remaining. On the Wizards’ next play, Beal could not duplicate DeRozan’s drive and had his shot blocked by Derrick White to end the game.
“The Spurs never fold in their building,” guard Isaiah Thomas said. “We’re a young team that’s learning how to be like them. It was great for us to experience something like this, and I think this will help us down the road.”
Thomas remained in the forefront during his time on the sideline. His personality, as much as his relatable 5-foot-9 height, has made him a popular figure at his previous NBA stops, and as his teammates tried to win games, Thomas made an effort to win over Washington fans during his recovery.
He crowdsourced information for the best facial in the city, and one day, for no apparent reason, he tweeted his love for D.C. Even on Friday, when he showed up to the Wizards’ win against the Thunder in a sweatshirt honoring his hometown Seattle Supersonics, trolling the basketball-loving people of Oklahoma City about the former version of their team, he said he would rather be wearing a Wizards uniform.
Thomas’s desire to please, and his intense yearning to prove that he has fully recovered from the pain and surgeries that have interrupted his past few seasons, could not overcome his rust. He hadn’t played in an NBA game since April 7, and it showed as Thomas hunted for shots during his first stint back on the floor.
He missed his first four shot attempts: a midrange jumper, a catch-and-shoot three that grazed the rim, an aggressive pull-up three in transition and finally a runner closer to the paint that missed the rim entirely.
Still, Brooks kept Thomas on the floor for nearly nine consecutive minutes, and visions of the old I.T. finally appeared. Thomas’s appetite for deep shots never waned, and he hit consecutive three-pointers, including a one-legged runner — a shot he has rehearsed over and over during post-practice workouts.
In the closing seconds of the third quarter, a regular layup did the trick as Thomas leveled the score at 90. He finished the game with 16 points on 6-for-14 shooting, and he played pivotal minutes as the Wizards threatened to pull off a notable win.
“I told the guys, that’s why our fans are going to fall in love with our team, because we just give a lot of incredible effort,” Brooks had said following the win Friday night in Oklahoma City.
There are no “Baby Shark” costumes visible inside the Wizards’ locker room or a puppy mascot to call their own. The Wizards haven’t quite reached the status of the local baseball team playing in the World Series or the hometown hockey squad still gaining capital from its Stanley Cup win. They have plenty of work to do to become as endearing as winners, but the Wizards have already convinced themselves. They are a team Washington will soon come to love.