MINNEAPOLIS — For the first time in their extended road trip, an unforgiving jaunt of five games in seven nights across three time zones, the Washington Wizards finally looked like they were ready to go home.
The Wizards emptied the bench in the closing seconds Monday night against the Minnesota Timberwolves — the universal sign in the NBA of waving the white flag. It could be argued that their defense had surrendered far earlier in the game, as the Wizards trailed throughout and fell with a thud, 119-104.
Minnesota’s Ricky Rubio set a franchise record with 19 assists and scored 22 points while Karl-Anthony Towns, who was announced as the Western Conference player of the week before the game, led all players with 39 points (17 of 26 from the field) and 13 rebounds.
The Wizards (41-25) wore their road blues as well as the look of a fatigued team. John Wall made 14 of a season-high 19 free throw attempts and finished with 27 points but contributed just five assists. Bradley Beal was the only other starter to surpass 11 points — he scored 20 but needed 21 shots to get there.
“I don’t make excuses but I’m not going to sit here and act like we’re not tired, we’re not a little bit exhausted. We are,” Beal said. “But it is the league. We’re not the only ones who go through it and play this many games in so many short nights.
“It is what it is,” Beal continued. “We take this loss like a man and we move on from it.”
Even so, moving on from some bad habits may take time.
This road trip produced plenteous fruits, even as the Wizards planted seeds of poor defense in each city along the way. In Phoenix, they fell into an 11-point hole before rallying. In Sacramento, the deficit before the comeback reached 15. Then by the time the Wizards hit Portland, they raised the stakes and spotted the Trail Blazers a 21-point lead they'd eventually overcome but the point remained – the team’s defense created the problems.
Over the four previous games, which also included a win in Denver, opponents have averaged 115.5 points per game. But Monday night in Minneapolis just might have been the Wizards' worst defensive effort of the trip.
Although Coach Scott Brooks, like several other players, rightfully assessed the overall 4-1 trip as an achievement, he also found the defensive effort to be less than ideal.
“We didn’t have our best stuff offensively, we didn’t have our best stuff defensively,” Brooks said. “At times we hoped that they’d miss instead of making them miss. When you do that, you’re not going to have much success in this league.”
Towns played just above three minutes to start the game due to foul trouble, but Washington still could not control the Timberwolves and allowed a seaosn-high 41 points in the first quarter.
First, it was Brandon Rush shooting with a flawless 3-for-3 touch from long distance. Then, later in the quarter, Nemanja Bjelica came off the bench as the next unsuspecting threat, making his first three shots as well. All the while, Rubio was finding open teammates and collecting 10 assists through only nine minutes of play.
Minnesota scored nine easy fast-break points as Washington trailed in transition. After Wall missed a three-point attempt, the rebounded ball soon landed in Rubio's hands and he found Bjelica once again streaking unhindered for a layup. At that moment, with 2:46 still remaining in the opening quarter, Minnesota led 35-14 and Brooks had to use a timeout.
But this trip has proved at least one thing: The Wizards know they're good - a team so talented it can scoff at trouble. Washington has won 14 games this season after climbing out of double-digit deficits, including the three on this Western swing. Minneapolis was bound to become the next city on the Wizards' comeback tour.
This time, however, the road finally hit back.
In the fourth quarter, Washington performed its usual magic. Beal's four-point play trimmed the lead to eight points with less than eight minutes to go. Later, Wall made a free throw to bring the Wizards closer, 102-97. But over the next two minutes, the Wizards did not score from the field. Taking advantage of this drought, the Timberwolves padded the lead back up to 10 points.
At the end of the night, Wall could reflect on the trip.
“Great trip,” he said. “When you finish 4-1, nobody can ask for nothing better.”
During the previous four games, Wall led the team with a 29.8 scoring average and 11.3 assists to go along with 3.3 rebounds and 1.5 steals. Besides lamenting the team’s shaky defense, Wall wished the road trip would’ve turned out differently in another way.
“I feel like, to be honest, I’m glad for the award but I feel like it should’ve been ‘co-Eastern Conference Player of the Week,’” Wall said. “I feel like Brad should’ve been Eastern Conference Player of the Week with me, the way he’s been playing and averaging almost 29 points, shooting 50 from the field and 50 from the three. Without him, we wouldn’t have won a lot of games this week and he plays the same way I did.”