CHICAGO — Tear-away pants pulled up high as usual, Jordan Crawford grimaced and gingerly walked from the vistors’ locker room at United Center to the warmup before the Washington Wizards took on the Chicago Bulls on Saturday night. Asked how he felt, Crawford replied, “I’m good.”
Crawford hobbled back about 20 minutes later, just before tip-off, and was ruled out with a sprained left ankle. The Wizards have been the worst offensive team in the NBA this season, so losing their leading scorer against a defensive-minded and well-rested Bulls team set the stage for another gruesome assault on rims and backboards.
The Wizards didn’t play the prettiest game against the Bulls, another team that struggles to score without its injured all-star point guard, Derrick Rose. But Chicago is better equipped and more accustomed to grinding out eyesore wins and pulled out an 87-77 slugfest.
“Obviously it hurts, you lose your leading scorer. It doesn’t help matters,” Coach Randy Wittman said. “I don’t think the guys were like, ‘Oh, Jordan’s not here, we’re not going to shoot the ball.’ We battled all the way to the end.”
Washington held the Bulls to 39.1 percent shooting from the floor but had an even tougher time finding the basket, shooting just 36.5 percent. The Wizards’ struggles haunted them as they missed their final eight attempts from the floor and were held scoreless for the final 4 minutes 47 seconds.
Emeka Okafor hauled in a season-high 18 rebounds and to go along with 11 points for his third double-double in four games. He brought the Wizards back from a 13-point second-half deficit to within 79-76 with 5:19 remaining when he tapped in a missed free throw by Shelvin Mack.
“I just turned around and the ball was in my hands. Just seemed like perfect timing a lot of times,” Okafor said of his dominant rebounding performance against the Bulls’ established front line of Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer. “We just had to come out and play hard. We had a couple of lulls, but we fought back. Again, we couldn’t close it out.”
The Wizards (4-24) outrebounded the Bulls 56-49, but they also committed 17 turnovers, with two costly mistakes coming in the final 3:53 — a bad pass from newcomer Garrett Temple to reserve big man Kevin Seraphin (12 points) that resulted in a back-court violation, and an offensive goaltending call on Seraphin — when they were outscored 8-1.
Consistency has been a problem for the Wizards all season, with Wittman adjusting his rotation and his lineups based on a laundry list of injuries and poor performances. On Saturday, Wittman ushered out his 12th different starting lineup, replacing the recently signed Mack at point guard with the recently signed Temple.
A journeyman who spent last season in Italy and this season playing for the Reno Bighorns of the NBA Development League, Temple got his first NBA start since 2009-10, when he started four games for the San Antonio Spurs. Temple had a solid outing in the Wizards’ 105-97 win against Orlando on Friday but the Bulls were prepared to slow him down. He played a game-high 41 minutes but finished with just eight points on 3-of-11 shooting, with Noah sending his last layup attempt in the opposition direction.
“End of the game we’ve got to buckle down execute and that falls on me,” said Temple, who also spent some time playing off the ball while Mack ran the show. “We missed Jordan because he makes those tough shots for us. When the shot clock is going down we just give it to him to try to get an easy basket. We definitely had the talent out there. We just have to make winning plays to close it out.”
Crawford had been playing with a sore left ankle for the past few games but it didn’t appear to slow him down until Saturday. In the win against Orlando, Crawford became the first Washington player in 42 years to come off the bench produce at least 27 points, six rebounds and six assists. He had averaged 21.8 points in the past six games and was the only player on the roster to score at least 20 points more than twice this season.
“Can’t make it as an excuse,” said Bradley Beal, who led the Wizards with 14 points but missed 10 of his 15 shots from the floor. “He’s not even 100 percent, but he’s still playing. He just couldn’t go tonight and we had to step up. We just came up on the short end of the stick.”
Chicago (16-12) hadn’t played since an embarrassing home loss to Houston on Christmas. The Bulls were supposed to play in Indiana on Wednesday but the game was postponed because of inclement weather, giving Wittman hope that the time off would make them rusty.
The Wizards appeared unfazed by Crawford’s absence early on but once the Bulls made their adjustments, the rim appeared to shrink, especially in the second and fourth quarters, when Washington scored just 13 points and 14 points, respectively.
“When it rains it pours,” Okafor said of being short-handed again, “you just have to keep on trucking.”