Washington Wizards Coach Scott Brooks spent part of his Wednesday texting with star guard John Wall, who returned home earlier in the day after season-ending surgery on his heel in Green Bay, Wis. Wall would later tune in to watch the Wizards return home themselves, Brooks said, as his team completed a back-to-back set with the Philadelphia 76ers.
It had been less than 24 hours since the 76ers had blasted the shorthanded Wizards by 17 points in Philadelphia on Tuesday night. A night later, with Wall watching from home, the Wizards rode a pair of big games from their two remaining pillars — Bradley Beal and Otto Porter Jr. — to a 123-106 win.
Beal scored 34 points and Porter came off the bench to score 23, giving the Wizards the kind of production they will need if they are to have any chance of climbing back into playoff contention in the Eastern Conference.
“We had some fun with this game. We treated this game possibly like a little playoff. You don’t play back-to-backs usually until the playoffs,” Brooks said.
Brooks addressed that very issue Wednesday shortly after delivering an update on Wall, whose long road to recovery has just begun. The Wizards (17-25), too, have a long path just to get back to .500, which Brooks admitted is typically considered the playoff threshold. With a bunch of challenging teams left on the slate before the all-star break — the Wizards will play the Toronto Raptors twice, the Milwaukee Bucks twice and the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs before the break, among other opponents — Washington’s postseason odds are not great.
“We’re playing well, but we have a lot to make up. We’re so far behind,” Brooks said. “We just want to put ourselves in position to one day get to .500.”
But on Wednesday night, against a team considered among the favorites to win the Eastern Conference, the Wizards saw a glimpse of what will be required if they are to make the playoffs. In addition to Beal and Porter, Trevor Ariza (17 points) anchored a defensive effort that was all but invisible the previous evening. Philadelphia (27-15) shot 43 percent from the field, including just 8 for 27 from three-point range, and committed 24 turnovers. It included Beal absorbing a charge by the 7-foot Joel Embiid and nine combined steals by Wizards reserves, all of which Brooks referred to as the kind of “winning basketball plays” that his team will need to climb out of the hole.
“It’s just extra effort. . . . It’s kind of that mentality of don’t let it be. Don’t be that guy that is relaxing on defense. Don’t be that guy that is getting beat,” Beal said.
The Wizards led by 26 in the third quarter, and their margin was never fewer than 12 in the fourth as Beal and Porter padded Washington’s cushion.
Brooks had harped on defensive adjustments against Philadelphia’s supporting cast around stars Jimmy Butler, Embiid and Ben Simmons — especially reserve guard Landry Shamet, who hit eight three-pointers and finished with 29 points in Philadelphia’s win over the Wizards on Tuesday night. The tweaks were evident early. While the Sixers’ star trio finished with 34 of the team’s 48 points in the first half, the rest of the lineup shot just 5 for 18 from the field in the first half.
“When we’re aggressive on both ends throughout the whole game,” Ariza said, “we give ourselves a chance.”
Embiid beat the buzzer with a tip-in to cut the Sixers’ halftime deficit to 15, a margin that could have been much wider given Philadelphia shot just 16 for 44 from the field in the first half, including 2 for 15 from three-point range. Beal made twice as many three-pointers himself in the first two quarters alone and finished with 18 points at the break.
With Wall out, Beal is expected to be the main source of offense. But he got plenty of help Wednesday as Washington’s bench, anchored by Porter, produced 51 points.
And even as Philadelphia surged in the fourth quarter, pulling within 102-90 on a pair of free throws by Butler, Beal responded with his most vigorous stretch of the night. He made four consecutive shots for the Wizards, including a pair of layups, a dunk and a three-pointer that pushed the lead back up to 19 with 5:26 remaining. That was enough for Brooks to declare afterward that his team’s shooting fortunes were about to turn as the second half of the season got underway with this important win.
“It’s going to turn,” Brooks said. “Tonight was a good start in that direction.”