MILWAUKEE — A flustered Coach Randy Wittman, after trying several different schemes and combinations, suddenly tried a simpler approach late in the second quarter of the Washington Wizards’ 119-118 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks. As his players ran back on defense, Wittman helplessly held out his hands and shouted, “Guard somebody!”
The message was a tad too late, because the Bucks had already taken advantage of the ample open looks and easily built a 22-point lead in the first 17 minutes of the game. With his pleas mostly ignored, Wittman took extreme measures at the start of the second half, as he benched starters JaVale McGee, Nick Young and Trevor Booker in favor of Kevin Seraphin, Jordan Crawford and Maurice Evans.
The bold move worked, as the Wizards quickly erased the enormous deficit before the end of the third period and appeared poised for a stunning victory when John Wall made a running one-hander to give his team a one-point lead with 6.8 seconds left. But Bucks forward Ersan Ilyasova tipped in a Brandon Jennings miss and Roger Mason Jr. couldn’t get off a final shot as he was called for traveling on the final possession.
“It was disappointing, but I think the lesson isn’t in just winning or losing the game,” Evans said after scoring 13 of his season-high 15 points in the second half. “I think the moral of that game was teaching the starters, it’s another gear that we can go to and we really need them to go to that gear in order to be successful in the long run.”
Booker responded to his benching by scoring 16 of his season-high 20 points in the second half and also played the role of an undersized center on the defensive end, finishing with 11 rebounds. Wall and Crawford each had 19 points, with Wall matching his career high with 15 assists as six different players scored in double figures for the Wizards (7-27), who have lost five in a row. Chris Singleton scored a career-high 16 points and Mason had a season-high 14 points.
“I’m done with young guys” as an excuse, Wittman said after his record dropped to 5-12 since replacing Flip Saunders. “If they don’t want to play the right way, young guys aren’t going to play. It does us no good. They’re not going to learn anything when they want to play the game the way they want to play. You get no development out of them. . . . All they’re developing is bad habits. I went with guys who I knew were going to go out there and bust their rear ends.”
The Bucks led, 55-33, when reserve Mike Dunleavy (game-high 28 points) hit one of his four second-quarter three-pointers, but the Wizards were able to get within 12. But McGee, who had earlier awed the fans at Bradley Center with an impressive dunk, again mixed the magnificent with the mystifying, as he helped the Wizards enter the locker room at halftime down 67-53. He fouled Bucks center Drew Gooden (15 points, 10 rebounds) on a three-point attempt with one second left in the period.
Wittman put his hands on his head, as if ready to yank out his hair. A few of McGee’s teammates shook their heads on the bench. McGee didn’t play in the second half. Young, the Wizards’ leading scorer, returned but didn’t score in a brief stint, finishing with just seven points on 3-for-11 shooting.
“Coach’s decision. It was a good decision,” Young said of the benching. “They played hard, fought all the way to the end. Could’ve gone either way.”
The Bucks led by 18 early in the third period, but the Wizards responded with an impressive 28-8 rally, built upon ball movement and defense. Evans stole the ball from Bucks forward Carlos Delfino and made a layup to put the Wizards ahead 81-79 — their first lead since the score was 2-0. Evans, who made back-to-back three-pointers to start the run, sat down shortly thereafter and jokingly asked if anyone had an oxygen tank.
“Coach Wittman is a good coach,” Wall said. “He knows how to motivate us.”
Mason was unable to legally play the last time the Wizards were in Milwaukee, as former coach Flip Saunders neglected to see that he wasn’t on the active roster before the game. Mason was left off but still played and made a basket, before the Wizards were assessed a technical foul in a disconcerting 102-81 loss.
“Witt joked with me before the game, said he was going to triple check it and make sure that I’m in there,” said Mason, who was disappointed that he couldn’t deliver on the final sequence after Booker had set a solid screen to get him open. Mason pump faked to get Dunleavy off his feet, but “I guess I must’ve shuffled my feet if they called travel. I feel bad for our guys that I missed that opportunity. I had a bunch of those end of the game situations and I hit a bunch of them. So I guess this is my first time not coming through.”
Crawford was pleased with the rally but disappointed that the Wizards couldn’t close. “I would be [encouraged] if we can bring what we did to this game to [Orlando on Wednesday at Verizon Center], but nothing we did this game will help us,” he said.