“They pounded us inside. They got the important stops. They challenged us and we didn’t step up for that challenge,” Coach Scott Brooks said. “We gave them no resistance. There was no physicality.”
The Wizards had to cancel their usual shoot-around Tuesday when snow blanketed the city in the morning. Too dangerous to be on the streets, Brooks explained. By the time the Wizards made it to the arena later on, several players were getting their first work in since Sunday night.
“It’s thin! It’s thin out there,” center Thomas Bryant informed Bradley Beal as he sprinted toward the Wizards’ locker room after his pregame workout.
Bryant, sweating profusely, was referring to the air inside the arena with the highest elevation in the league, 5,280 feet.
“It’s thin, man,” Bryant said.
Still, players didn’t use the altitude or the canceled shoot-around to justify the team’s poor shooting. They blamed something more alarming than the thin air.
“We didn’t have energy, both starters and the bench,” Isaiah Thomas said.
Although the percentages ticked up in the fourth quarter, with the pressure of winning the game long removed, the Wizards connected on only 1 of 16 three-point attempts through the first half and were outscored 39-24 in the second quarter.
Beal seemed especially affected by the cold front. Although he made 4 of 5 shots from inside the arc, he missed eight of his 10 three-point attempts. As the Nuggets stretched their lead in the fourth, Beal remained on the sideline with 14 points, six assists and four turnovers.
Several others in the Wizards’ starting lineup also did not play in the final quarter, unable to make amends for their play through the first 36 minutes.
Bryant provided robust interior defense at the start — he protected the rim against a Will Barton drive and disrupted a pass to Denver’s star center Nikola Jokic. However, Bryant picked up two early fouls and spent the fewest time on the court (10 minutes 45 seconds) of any starter through the first half.
Rui Hachimura had his rookie moments on the defensive end. Through a stretch in the second quarter, Hachimura fouled and gave up a three-point play to Nuggets forward Jerami Grant, then he lost center Mason Plumlee on a dive to the rim. On the third straight play in which he was targeted, Hachimura committed another foul. Hachimura scored seven points and went 3 for 10 from the field.
Besides poor shooting, the Wizards struggled on the glass. Bryant, Hachimura and starting small forward Troy Brown Jr. combined for 16 rebounds while Jokic pulled down 20.
And although Thomas scheduled a personal shooting session in Denver after the Wizards landed on Monday, his return to the Mile High City ended resulted in a 1-for-8 clip for a season-low three points.
“One of the worst games I played, for sure, individually,” Thomas confessed. “Collectively, we have to be way better. We have to do better and that starts with me. Brad is our main guy but I’m the head of the snake, the point guard that has to get everybody involved, stay aggressive offensively and play a lot better. So I put this one on me.”
The challenging trip in which the Wizards face the three top teams in the Western Conference (Nuggets, Lakers and Clippers) as well as the youthful and surging Phoenix Suns (8-8 and eighth in the conference) could also double as a trip down memory lane for Thomas, who played for the Suns (46 games in 2014-15), Lakers (17 games in 2017-18) and the Nuggets last season.
“I have a tremendous amount of respect for who Isaiah is,” Nuggets Coach Mike Malone said, “not only as a player but as a man and everything he’s had to go through.”
Thomas’s short detour with the Nuggets coincided with the longest rehabilitation of his career and by the time he got healthy, he joined a settled rotation with championship aspirations. Though his playing time was limited, the Nuggets felt his impact.
“What I think people probably don’t realize is, we miss I.T.” Malone said before the game. “Even though he only played nine games for us last year, his personality, his voice, his leadership, his presence I thought was instrumental in our team last year, even after taking him out of that rotation, which was not easy for him.”
Before tipoff, Thomas could not get far on the Pepsi Center court without a reunion he clearly seemed to relish. He bearhugged forward Juancho Hernangomez. He joked with Jokic and several team staffers. And a Nuggets assistant coach jokingly commanded Thomas to get down and give him push-ups, which Thomas obliged.
However, once the game started, the Nuggets weren’t as friendly to their former teammate.
Through the first half, Denver held Thomas to 1-of-5 shooting for three points to go along with two turnovers and a few moments inside a defensive torture chamber. Nuggets point guard Jamal Murray picked up Thomas early as he dribbled down court. Murray swatted one of Thomas’s floaters and tore the ball away from him another time.
At the 2:35 mark of the second quarter, Jokic, the 7-foot, 249-pounder, joined the fray by leveling Thomas at the rim. Thomas, who laid on his back near the baseline for longer than usual, earned the two free throws for taking such punishment. Still, Thomas made only one, a recurring theme for the night.
Open shooters bricked long-distance attempts. Beal took just one shot in the second quarter, a 25-footer from the top of the key, and that one ricocheted off the rim and over the top of the backboard. Washington missed 13 of 20 attempts in the second quarter while the Nuggets found their stride and scored 22 points in the paint. By halftime, Washington trailed by 17 and Denver maintained a double-digit edge through most of the remainder of the game.
“This is going to be a tough trip,” Brooks warned, “if we don’t give resistance and don’t compete the way we’ve been competing and playing against some of the best teams in the West.”
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