SACRAMENTO — The Washington Wizards waited more than three months for John Wall to make his season debut and his return has raised the expectations and confidence for a bottom-of-the-standings team that now believes opponents should overlook it at their own peril.
Wall’s first two games of his season were a breeze, blowout victories that resulted in the most swagger-filled 7-28 team in NBA history taking on the Sacramento Kings on Wednesday at Sleep Train Arena. But that new attitude is the reason why the Wizards’ 95-94 loss was so disappointing, because Washington had the lineup that it has longed for all season but collapsed in the same fashion that has been the norm in Wall’s absence.
The Wizards let an 11-point, second-half lead evaporate into a tie, went back ahead by five with about four minutes remaining and then made a series of blunders — on both ends of the floor and at the foul line — that had them smarting and huddling with each other in the locker room after the game. Even with Wall playing his most efficient game, and Bradley Beal playing the best game of his rookie season, the Wizards still couldn’t close.
“We didn’t put them away. We never put the pedal the metal. We never stepped on their throats. We let them win this game,” Beal said after posting new season-best marks in points scored (26), three-pointers made (six) and matching his career high with six assists. “We did some dumb stuff down the stretch, and we didn’t execute, really. That’s what really killed us. It’s real disappointing because we let them in too easily.”
Despite the breakdown, the Wizards still had ample opportunities to start their five-game trip with a victory. Wall had his first double-double of the season with 14 points and 10 assists in 26 minutes and came up big in the final minute. With the score tied at 94, Wall stripped the ball from Kings center DeMarcus Cousins, his former college roommate at Kentucky, sped up the floor and drew a foul with 30.4 seconds remaining.
Wall, however, missed both free throws. Then, on the next defensive possession, Martell Webster played Kings guard Tyreke Evans too closely near the three-point line and let him blow past him. Nene slid up to help but tripped Evans, sending him to the foul line with 11.4 seconds left. Webster and Nene argued at the foul line and Evans (21 points, eight assists) made the decisive free throw.
“That’s how you do it, John Wall,” a fan shouted at Wall before Evans missed the second free throw badly and set up the final possession for the Wizards.
Beal drove inside and attempted a one-handed shot similar to the one he hit last week to defeat Oklahoma City, but it was too hard. Wall grabbed the rebound, but his rushed attempt to win came up well short as time expired. The Wizards are now 3-13 in games decided by six points or less.
“Upset that I gave away those two free throws,” Wall said. “We just got to do a better job of closing out quarters, closing out halves and execute at the end of the game. I feel like we just gave the game away. We got to make plays, make shots and make defensive stops and we didn’t do that.”
The discrepancy between what the Wizards’ record says they are and what they believe they are has perhaps never been greater. Relative good health and the improved play of role players have converged at a time when the team is too low in the standings to ever be taken seriously as a playoff threat but too high in spirits to give in on the rest of the season.
And that belief was evident in early in the game when Webster (10 points) climbed Cousins for an emphatic dunk early and nodded his head toward the Wizards’ bench as he ran back on defense. Later, Beal drilled his third three-pointer of the first half and mockingly stared down Kings reserve James Johnson, who had the nerve to fly in front of him.
Sacramento mayor and former NBA star Kevin Johnson sat courtside as he attempts to keep the Kings in town despite efforts from a group in Seattle to purchase the team and move it to the Pacific Northwest. The Kings (15-24) have been one of the league’s worst teams this season, but they have been respectable at home, winning 12 of their 22 games at Sleep Train Arena. The Wizards have lost three straight in the building.
“Our effort was great,” Coach Randy Wittman, a former King, said after possibly his last game in Sacramento, “but this one hurts. There is no question about it. Put themselves in position to win that and we walked away without it.”
The Wizards had 32 assists for the second game in a row, with Wall serving as a spectacular setup man. He had three assists in the third period, driving into the lane, drawing three defenders and finding Beal for a corner three-pointer that put the Wizards ahead 66-55. He later weaved along the baseline, whipped the ball behind-the-back and around the waist before making an underhand dish to Nene for a layup.
Nene (15 points, nine rebounds) scored five straight points during a 7-2 run that put them ahead 91-86 but Cousins made a layup, then coerced Kevin Seraphin into fouling him on a driving layup and made a free throw to tie the score with 1 minute 48 seconds remaining. Webster and Salmons then traded three-pointers before Beal was unable to handle a pass from Webster in the left corner and fumbled the ball out of bounds.
“It was a hard to give away a game like that,” said Nene, who is set to make his return to Denver on Friday for the first time since getting traded to Washington last March. “A lot of us are going to be angry, because give away a game here, somebody need to pay for it. Probably, [the Nuggets] are going to pay for it.”