In the closing seconds Sunday night, when Burke, who spent one year in Washington as a backup point guard, moved around a reaching Kelly Oubre Jr. and scored the back-breaking layup against his former team, he appeared to flex his arms ever so slightly toward the silenced baseline fans. But he saved the dagger for his stunned former teammates on the sideline, giving a look that provided the finishing touches to a night inside Capital One Arena that ended in boos.
Fans voiced their displeasure with the 101-97 loss, then Bradley Beal expressed his own with colorful comments about the team’s apparent lack of urgency with only nine games remaining on the schedule.
“We looked like we didn’t give a damn, honestly,” Beal said. “We just thought we could show up and play because they don’t have anything to play for. So, we just thought it was going to be a cakewalk, and [the Knicks] smacked us in the mouth.”
The long nights, a constant hum of lethargy in offensive sets and untimely defensive mistakes have begun to wear down the Wizards (40-33). But after Sunday’s loss, the team’s third straight, mental fatigue reached a new low.
Just before fouling late in the game when the Wizards “can’t foul in that situation, we can’t do it,” Coach Scott Brooks stressed later, Oubre attempted his sixth three-pointer of the night as his team held a one-point lead. However, like the previous five deep looks, this one clanked off the rim, and the miss set up Burke’s go-ahead drive and three-point play with 35 seconds remaining.
Oubre might have made two mistakes, but veteran Otto Porter Jr. squandered two points. When the Knicks pulled ahead by three points and Porter had a chance to cut into that lead, he missed both free throw attempts with 3.8 seconds remaining.
Porter, who shot 5 for 13 from the field, shared his late-game shooting misery with others. Markieff Morris tossed up a bad baseline look at the end of the shot clock, and Beal missed two threes during a time when the Wizards conceivably should have been coasting. Instead, they spent much of the second half chasing the lottery-destined Knicks (27-47) after giving up 42 points in the second quarter.
“We had a great practice before that,” guard Tomas Satoransky said of the team’s Saturday session. “Seems like we’re playing better there, with more effort, and this can’t happen.”
In Satoransky’s view, players are waiting on John Wall as if his presence will cure all problems. For the 25th straight game, Wall did not put on a uniform, but when he returns from his left knee rehabilitation, the Wizards will have only a handful of games to try to escape sixth place in the Eastern Conference and a possible first-round matchup against the Cleveland Cavaliers.
“It looked like we’re waiting for John to come back and change everything and not playing like we did in the first game he was missing,” Satoransky said. “That’s not the right way to do it. We have to go there and play as hard as we can every game.”
When the Wizards faced the worst-case scenario of Wall’s injury, forced to play without their franchise point guard for two months, they rallied in the adversity. Brooks tweaked the playbook slightly to maximize ball sharing, and the team thrived in the “Everybody Eats” era by winning nine of its next 12 games. By the start of March, these Wizards, fueled on the belief that they had more than enough to win without Wall, resided in fourth place in the East.
This adrenaline, however, has since perished. And like a carton of milk past its expiration date, the Wizards’ spoiled mojo has stunk up the place.
“It’s us in this locker room,” Beal said about the team’s lagging energy. “Coach preaches it every single day, but till we do it individually and together collectively, we’re going to get our [tail] kicked in the playoffs.
“This isn’t even remotely acceptable with how we’re playing right now because we’re playing like we’re going to be done on April 11.”
Before facing the Knicks, Washington completed 13 consecutive games against playoff-caliber teams and finished 6-7. The New York matchup ended that stretch, but the Wizards’ mounting problems continued.
In consecutive losses against the San Antonio Spurs and Denver Nuggets, the Wizards spent quarters in a fight just to score. On Sunday, the offense, which once flowed with beautiful ball movement and good looks immediately following Wall’s absence, relied too heavily on jump shots. Although the Wizards could justify the decision to take these looks, with many of them being open, their inaccuracy should have made players think twice about attempting so many.
In the first quarter, Washington missed nine shots outside the paint and led 21-19. But as the misses piled up, the Wizards’ advantage disappeared.
Midway through the second quarter, Beal came around a screen for an open look from the three-point arc and missed. On the other end, Knicks forward Michael Beasley faked Mike Scott and drilled an open baseline jumper and the Wizards trailed by eight.
Later, when Beal misfired on another jumper to close the half 2 for 7 from the field, Porter grabbed the offensive rebound, but his extra pass ended up in the hands of Tim Hardaway Jr. The turnover was turned into a Knicks layup, and the Wizards trailed by nine.
At the lowest point, when the Wizards were barely shooting over 41 percent, the deficit grew to a dozen. Then as the Knicks cooled off for a stretch in the third quarter, missing nine of 10 shots, Washington blew several opportunities to take the lead.
Finally, with less than 4½ minutes to play, Beal, who finished with 14 points on 5-for-17 shooting, hit his first three-pointer of the game, tying the score at 88. However, Washington did not survive the back and forth while Burke scored six of his game-high 19 points in the final quarter.
“He was on a mission tonight. Plain and simple. We played him like we didn’t know what he was capable of doing,” Beal said. “It was kind of a statement game for him. He made it personal.”
The weekend was meant to be a celebration. On Friday, the team retired Phil Chenier’s No. 45. Then during halftime Sunday, the surviving members of the 1978 championship Washington Bullets team took to the court. Everyone except for Wes Unseld, who could not attend but sent a video message, soaked up the appreciation for the 40th anniversary of the franchise’s only title.
However, the commemoration of the past served as a temporary respite from the present state of the Wizards.
“I’m tired of talking about this [expletive], man,” Beal said barely above a whisper. “It’s just the same thing over and over. I’m tired of it.”