In just 12 minutes, the Washington Wizards’ bench illustrated how to play the game of basketball.
These were the players at the end of the bench. Young guys making the minimum on rookie-scale contracts and one veteran still searching for his role on the roster. And yet they looked as if they have played in harmony for years, moving the ball and their bodies in ways that created easy looks and open shots. They distributed shot attempts and scored at will as many of the starters, handsomely paid but overdressed in warmup suits, looked on.
On Sunday night, the Wizards lost, 119-109, to the Portland Trail Blazers and fell to 5-11. That the final margin was only 10 points can be attributed to the five-man unit of Wizards reserves who smeared lipstick on an ugly night by filling the fourth quarter with the passion and energy missing for long stretches of the game.
What should have been an excessive loss turned into a tutorial of how the Wizards want to play moving forward. And this lesson had a captive audience: the players who form the foundation of this franchise, watching from the bench.
“The guys who were in it at the end of the game played their [butts] off,” Bradley Beal said. “Played the way they we’re supposed to play the whole game, and we didn’t do that.”
One starter who was not around for the late rally was center Dwight Howard, who suffered a recurrence of the gluteal soreness that hindered him throughout the preseason. He played just seven minutes.
In the fourth quarter, the group of Tomas Satoransky, Austin Rivers, rookie Troy Brown Jr., Kelly Oubre Jr. and Thomas Bryant scored 39 points on 65.2 percent shooting. The unit drilled five three-pointers and had assists on 14 of its 15 made shots.
“My job is to come in and try to cut the lead as big as possible, honestly,” Brown said, sharing his mind-set when he checks in during garbage time. “No matter what I get in, I still think there’s a chance. Regardless if it’s a minute or not. My job is to come in and play as hard as I can.”
The reserves played so hard, despite inheriting a 19-point deficit at the start the quarter, that their effort compelled Portland Coach Terry Stotts to send all-star point guard Damian Lillard back on the court to silence the uprising.
Coach Scott Brooks didn’t mimic the move. He rolled with the squad that made basketball look fun, nothing like the tedious labor his starters produced to open the game.
In contrast to the fourth quarter, the Wizards’ starters filled the opening 12 minutes with impassive play. They stood around in offensive sets as the ball stuck. Defenders rotated for most of the shot clock before wearing out and surrendering seven three-pointers. And by the 3:54 mark, they had tumbled into a 20-point deficit.
“We got to just play with more enthusiasm, more effort, more energy,” Brooks said. “That’s embarrassing. It’s embarrassing.”
After the game, John Wall seemed to be even-tempered but flashed some emotion when asked how it felt watching the bench guys play so hard.
“It was great, man. See those guys play well. What you want me to say, it felt bad?” Wall said. “Nah, it felt great, man. It was good to see those guys compete, those guys played with a lot of effort. They made it a game.”
Later, the root of Wall’s frustration trickled out. By the seventh question, Wall was asked whether he’s running out of patience, and he mentioned the officiating. A team staffer responded, “Thanks, John,” as a way to end the chat with reporters and save Wall from saying anything dangerous. However, Wall did not appreciate how Lillard attempted 15 free throws compared with his five, and he wanted to express that.
“I’m always positive. I’s just a lot of bull---- that — c’mon, man,” Wall said. “These guys getting all the calls, and these guys are jump shooters. You got a guy that shot the ball 12 for 29 and then shot 15 free throws.”
Another staffer chimed in and warned Wall to be careful so he wouldn’t get fined by the NBA.
“I don’t care about that,” Wall responded.
“All we can control about is playing hard and making shots, and that’s what we got to control as players. Other than that, can’t control nothing else,” Wall said, softening his tone. “That’s what I can control, going out there and playing hard every night and competing. That’s all I can control. I can’t control if the ball goes into the basket or not. You’re going to miss or make sometimes.
“If all five of us give effort on that end, we’ll be fine,” Wall said about the defensive end. “If three of us give effort, we won’t be fine. If four give effort, we still won’t be fine. It takes five to all be on one page. Until we do that, we’re going to keep having these ups and downs.”
If the fourth quarter is any indication, the Wizards wouldn’t experience this much inconsistency if only they would follow the lead of the reserves.
“It’s frustrating, man, because it’s not supposed to be this difficult,” Rivers said. “It’s basketball. This is not rocket science.”