“It is real; it happens,” the Wizards’ coach said on a videoconference call when asked whether he had to guard against his team losing focus. “Spring break is in the air.”
The key to getting Washington back to its winning ways was defense, Brooks said. Defense was the critical reason his team had closed February with a 7-2 stretch, and defense could get it past the Memphis Grizzlies and their highflying star, Ja Morant.
But the Wizards’ defense never showed up in a sluggish 125-111 loss, leaving Washington with one last chance to sneak in a win before its mini-vacation. All the Wizards (13-20) have to do is mow down the Los Angeles Clippers on Thursday.
“They were running their offense,” Brooks said of the Grizzlies. “They weren’t worried about going through us. There just wasn’t enough physicality — not necessarily you have to foul, but you’ve got to make them think about their reads instead of just playing through them. . . . They got comfortable in the last 18 minutes of the first half.”
The Wizards’ recently solid defense never materialized against the Grizzlies (16-15), but it didn’t fall off a cliff until the second quarter. The result was sloppy, rushed offense that featured a ghastly 22 turnovers — a season high — and a relatively quiet night from Bradley Beal. The all-star guard had 23 points (and a season-high six turnovers), the same scoring total as backcourt mate Russell Westbrook. The point guard also had six rebounds, 15 assists and eight turnovers.
“It’s definitely mind-set, because they came in ready to go,” Beal said. “I was hearing [my defender] Dillon Brooks the whole night; he was like, ‘I was prepared for this.’ . . . That’s great to see. He’s a competitor; he’s always going to make it tough. You understood how they approached the game tonight, and I don’t think they had that same mentality. They were too relaxed, and we let them pretty much control the intensity of the game.”
Beal and Westbrook were no match for the feisty Grizzlies, who were still buzzing from a 49-point win over the Houston Rockets on Sunday. Morant was electric against every matchup the Wizards threw his way, earning a fist bump from Beal as the teams walked off the court.
The second-year pro led all scorers with 35 points and made 11 of 14 attempts from the foul line. Point guard De’Anthony Melton was just as hot, scoring 20 points on 6-for-10 shooting from the three-point line, and Dillon Brooks added 20 points of his own.
“[Morant] kind of manipulated us tonight,” Beal said.
At the start, it appeared Westbrook was going to set the tone for the Wizards. The 32-year-old racked up nine points and six assists in seven minutes in the first quarter; it was the first time he has made more than one three-pointer in a game since Feb. 10. But cracks in the Wizards’ defense showed; Memphis shot 59.1 percent in the first 12 minutes, and Washington was turning the ball over too much for its solid start to last.
To end the first half, the Grizzlies rattled off a 27-8 run fueled primarily by Morant, whom the Wizards could not stop no matter whom they put in front of him. Morant walked to the locker room with 17 points on 6-for-8 shooting as Washington’s sloppiness continued in its haste to make up ground. It ended the half with 14 turnovers, seven of which belonged to Westbrook.
“In the league, top-10 turnover guys, you’d take every single one of them,” Brooks said when asked about Westbrook’s average of 4.8 turnovers this season. “They make a lot of plays for their team, and Russell’s no different. He’s averaging one more turnover than I would like — he should be in the high threes. . . . He needs to be better. He knows. But a lot of it is still feeling his way with our guys. We’ve been together for quite some time now, but we’ve got to figure it out.”
The Wizards have one more chance to end the first half of the season on a positive note. But the Clippers beat them by 19 points Feb. 23 in Los Angeles; the Wizards never led in that one.
“The toughest games are always the ones right before the break and right after the break, because everybody’s so looking forward to getting out of here, doing whatever they need to do,” Beal said. “But you have to understand that great teams, they embrace these times and these wins right before the break serving as momentum for the second half of the year. . . . We’ve got to make sure we’re ready to go on Thursday.”
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