These Wizards. Just one night removed from a frustrating loss to a lottery-bound opponent, shorthanded Washington stayed competitive with one of the best teams in the Western Conference, even renewing its distant playoff hopes, however fleetingly.
But reality set in by the final buzzer with a 113-108 loss to the Denver Nuggets at Capital One Arena. If the final nine games of this regular season resemble anything like the past two nights, the Wizards will exasperate and excite their loyalists until the April 9 season finale. Ultimately, however, the results almost certainly will have them watching the postseason, falling short of the Wizards’ top-down organizational goal.
Washington (30-43) has lost three straight games and four of five, and it is six games behind the eighth-seeded Miami Heat with nine games left. The Wizards can do the math.
“You try to be optimistic about it but realistic at the same time, too,” Bradley Beal said. “It’s tough when you’re in a position where you need help from other teams. They’re trying to make it just like we are. . . . It’s tough for us, but we just keep fighting. Fighting till the end.”
The loss notwithstanding, the night provided purpose.
Rookie Troy Brown Jr. made his first career start in place of Trevor Ariza (strained left groin) and contributed 13 points, five rebounds and three assists in 33 minutes.
When Coach Scott Brooks addressed reporters almost two hours before tip-off, his decision to put Brown in the starting lineup was still fresh. Wizards fans following social media updates might have received the news before Brown.
“I haven’t delivered it to him yet. I just found out,” Brooks said. “I’m sure if he’s on Twitter, he will be very excited.”
Brown, a 19-year-old, was in fact scrolling his Twitter timeline on the trainer’s table when he discovered he would be making his first career start.
“Yeah,” Brown confirmed. “And then [Brooks] called me in, we sat down, and we talked about it and stuff like that, and he told me what I needed to do today.”
Brooks could relate to the teenager and the emotions he might have felt. Brooks recalled his first career start 41 games into his rookie season with the 1988-89 Philadelphia 76ers. However, Brown, as the No. 15 pick, has something on his undrafted coach — he’s expected to have a starting role one day. It just happened to come as an emergency fill-in for the regular starter, but it may serve as a preview of things to come.
“Troy’s getting better; he’s solid. I thought he played with a little force,” Brooks said. “Those are the things, as you progress in this league, you become more comfortable and the game tells you to do those things more, and he’s able to do them.”
Brown had help in his new role from the Wizards’ leader. Beal scored a game-high 25 points a night after sharply criticizing his teammates following their overtime loss to the Bulls. “We just didn’t want to win,” Beal surmised in Chicago.
The attitude didn’t follow the Wizards back to the District, where the team nearly forced another overtime against a Nuggets team (48-22) battling for the top seed in the West.
Beal’s second turnover of the fourth quarter, with 2:24 remaining, quickly led to fast break points for Jamal Murray, and Denver went up 106-100.
Later, Beal surprised Nikola Jokic with a double-team and stripped the ball. His breakaway dunk pulled the Wizards within 106-104 with 1:53 remaining. After a timeout, Murray’s baseline drive beat the defense before Will Barton hit a three off the right elbow.
With 12.7 seconds remaining and the Wizards trailing 111-108, Thomas Bryant, who also started, freed himself up for a game-tying three-pointer. The shot was off the mark, and when Denver missed both free throws on the next possession, the Wizards could not corral the defensive rebound. Gary Harris swooped in, secured the ball and sealed the game with free throws.
“Give our guys a lot of credit. They fought throughout the game. This is a very good basketball team that’s playing at a high level,” Brooks said. “[The Nuggets] have a lot of talent. They have a lot of guys. When their bench comes in, you forget about their starters, and the starters come back in. I thought we competed and we gave it great effort. That’s what we’ve been doing. We have to continue to do that.”