CLEVELAND — When the Washington Wizards ushered out a starting lineup of Bradley Beal, A.J. Price, Emeka Okafor, Trevor Ariza and Trevor Booker for Tuesday night’s season opener at Quicken Loans Arena, they couldn’t have sent a clearer message about how much they desire to move beyond a four-year period in franchise history when losing was synonymous with hijinks and seasons that ended with lottery trips.
Of the five Wizards who were on the floor for the opening tip in Cleveland, four weren’t on the team last season, and Booker was sidelined with plantar fasciitis. These Wizards may be more professional and accountable, but they were also missing point guard John Wall, center Nene and forward Kevin Seraphin — three important players who were responsible for the team finishing last season with six consecutive victories.
And until one or all of the members of that injured trio returns, the Wizards will have a difficult time overcoming nights like Tuesday, when they had no counter for an explosive point guard (Kyrie Irving) and an active big man (Anderson Varejao) and lost to the Cavaliers, 94-84.
“Disappointing loss,” Okafor said. “You just have to fight. Every game is going to be unique and can’t use what you don’t have as an excuse.”
Wearing a sport coat and spectacles on the bench, Wall, the No. 1 overall pick in 2010, had a front-row seat as Irving — the top choice in 2011 and last year’s rookie of the year — carved up the Wizards’ defense for 29 points and Varejao took advantage of their depleted front line by grabbing 21 of his career-high 23 rebounds in the first three quarters.
The Wizards trailed, 74-62, to start the fourth quarter, but Coach Randy Wittman went with a lineup featuring Jannero Pargo, Earl Barron, Chris Singleton, Jordan Crawford and Martell Webster, and that group scored the game’s next 14 points. Pargo, a veteran who beat out Shelvin Mack for one of the final roster spots, gave them a two-point lead when he buried a three-pointer from the left corner.
Cleveland went five minutes without scoring until rookie Dion Waiters buried a fadeaway three-pointer and Varejao drew a foul while fighting for a rebound. Varejao made the free throw to put the Cavaliers back ahead, but Crawford came back to knock down a difficult baseline floater to tie the score at 78.
“I know my mind-set was to stick a dagger in them,” said Crawford, who led the team with just 11 points but needed 13 shots. “That’s what I wanted to do.”
Former Wizard Alonzo Gee had a putback to give the Cavaliers an 82-80 lead and they never looked back, pulling away for good with a pair of dunks from second-year player Tristan Thompson (12 points, 10 rebounds) on passes from Varejao on consecutive possessions. Varejao nearly had a triple-double with nine points and a game-high nine assists. He also had 12 offensive rebounds.
“To me, he’s their best player,” Booker said of Varejao. “Kyrie might be the most talented, but to me, Varejao is their best player and he showed it. He was a ball magnet. Every ball that came off came his way. Even when our players had him boxed out, it came to his hands.”
The Wizards were outrebounded, 54-39, and their inability to keep Cleveland off the glass disrupted an offense that relies on getting stops and getting out in transition. They had 13 fast-break points, but the Cavaliers had 23 second-chance points.
Okafor, who came along with Ariza in a pre-draft trade with New Orleans, had 10 points and seven rebounds in his Wizards debut but didn’t play in the fourth quarter, with Wittman relying on Barron, who led the team with eight rebounds and added eight points in just over 16 minutes.
“Least amount of minutes and led us in rebounding. Earl was playing pretty good,” Wittman said, when asked if Okafor didn’t play because of a shoulder injury suffered in practice last week. “There is nothing wrong with Emeka.”
Before making his NBA debut, Beal, the third overall pick out of Florida, sat in front of his locker room stall with orange headphones and scribbled, “Psalms 32,” onto his sneakers. He made his first two three-point attempts in the first quarter, but after scoring eight points in the first half, Beal didn’t score again. His rookie counterpart, Waiters, the fourth pick last June, more than doubled him with 17 points.
“I could’ve played a lot better than I did,” Beal said. “I felt good in the beginning. I was making shots and doing what I was supposed to do on both ends and I got lax. I kind of disappeared. I was mentally ready. Just unfortunate that we lost.”
Wittman believes Seraphin is close to coming back from a strained right calf. Wall isn’t expected to return from a stress injury in his left knee until early December and there is no timetable for Nene’s return from plantar fasciitis. Their absences force the Wizards to be more creative in generating offense.
The Wizards moved the ball well enough, with 26 assists on their 32 field goals. But they finished shooting 35.6 percent from the floor and were 8 for 32 (25 percent) from beyond the three-point line.
Washington’s starters were outscored, 71-38, by Cleveland's starting five. Ariza had nine points and four assists, Price led the team with six assists but missed 11 of his 13 shots. Booker missed 7 of 9 shots — including a layup attempt blocked by Irving — and had four turnovers with just one rebound. Webster had nine points off the bench.
“We just weren’t executing,” Singleton said. “We got bullied.”
The Wizards will have three days to regroup and prepare for their home opener on Saturday against the Boston Celtics.
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