Two nights following a signature victory, the Washington Wizards pushed another Western Conference front-runner to the brink on the strength of a blistering first quarter, but this time, they tumbled at the finish in a 108-104 loss to the Denver Nuggets on Friday night before 14,866 at Verizon Center.
The Wizards got a team-high 25 points from Nick Young, who on Friday morning declared he had returned to top form. Then several hours later, he backed up those claims with 17 points in the first 12 minutes.
But Young and his teammates bungled chances when it mattered most, and Al Harrington’s three-pointer with 1 minute 14 seconds remaining all but put the outcome out of reach for Washington, which on Wednesday toppled West-leading Oklahoma City, 105-102.
“We played hard. We played well,” Wizards Coach Flip Saunders said. “We had opportunities. Just didn’t seem we could hit. Missed a couple easy opportunities. Had some good defensive stops. Couldn’t come up with the loose ball. Harrington killed us.”
Washington (2-13) had taken a 98-97 lead with 4:07 left on Jordan Crawford’s three-pointer, and Young drew a charge to give the Wizards a chance to grow the margin. Denver, however, scored the next three points, including Arron Afflalo’s layup with 2:07 left, to wrest the lead for good.
The Wizards cut it 106-104 with just more than nine seconds to play on a pair of Crawford free throws, but Harrington’s finishing dunk punctuated a game-high 29 points and extended the Nuggets’ winning streak to three.
“This one hurt because we felt we were actually better than this team tonight,” said Crawford, who scored 18 points coming off the bench, “and to give it up like that, we shot ourselves in the foot, so it hurt.”
John Wall narrowly missed a triple-double with 13 points, 10 assists and nine rebounds, although he missed 13 of 17 shots. The Wizards point guard also had three blocks but missed the basket entirely on a long jumper in the last minute.
The Nuggets (11-5) had three players reach at least 21 points, including Clinton-born point guard Ty Lawson, who added nine rebounds and six assists. Danilo Gallinari also had 21 points for Denver.
Saunders had spoken in detail over the past few days about urging his starters to be more attentive from tip-off, and that group responded by helping Washington to its highest-scoring first quarter and first half this season. Young anchored the flurry, making 7 of 11 shots, including 3 for 5 from three-point range, in the first.
Wall’s first quarter featured four points, five rebounds and four assists with one turnover, and the Wizards handed out 13 assists in taking a 37-27 lead.
The last time Washington scored at least 37 points in a quarter was Jan. 11, 2011, when it amassed 38 in the first and 40 in the third against Sacramento. Washington also had gone 10 years without recording 13 assists in a quarter.
With Young resting most of the second quarter, partially because of a thumb injury suffered in a collision with Afflalo just before halftime, the Wizards’ scoring stagnated. Denver took advantage, tying the game at 58 with 2:41 left until intermission on Lawson’s three-pointer. But Washington scored five straight points and went into the locker room ahead, 63-61.
The Wizards’ slim halftime lead vanished in less than two minutes. That’s how long it took Denver to score three straight baskets coming out of intermission, prompting Saunders to call timeout with Washington suddenly down, 67-63.
Consecutive jumpers by Young regained the lead for Washington briefly before the Nuggets reeled off eight points in a row. The Nuggets began the fourth quarter with an 86-81 advantage when Denver’s Andre Miller was called for a technical foul.
Young made the bonus free throw, and the Wizards scored the next five points to tie it at 86 on Rashard Lewis’s tip-in. The lead teetered back and forth. Shelvin Mack made a three-pointer off Lewis’s pass for a 91-90 Wizards advantage. Denver used a 6-2 burst to reclaim the lead, 95-92, with 6:39 remaining, but Young’s three-pointer with 4:40 left tied the game at 95 and set the stage for tense finish.
“They had it going I’d say in the second half, but I felt good out there,” said Young, whose left thumb was taped after the game. “I thought tonight was going to end differently for me and for the team, but obviously it went the other way.”