What happened to this being the breakout season for the Washington Wizards? The NBA franchise representing the America’s capital started this season 10-3, appearing to be the D.C. squad ready to bring the franchise to an elusive conference final.
Washington hasn’t been to the conference finals in 43 years, since achieving that feat four times in the 1970s under its former moniker, the Bullets, a name discarded from the franchise in the mid-1990s due to D.C.’s high homicide rate due to the gun violence of the first part of the decade. Former team owner Abe Pollin is long believed to have changed the name after the Nov. 4, 1995 assassination of longtime friend Yitzhak Rabin, Israel’s Prime Minister.
And since officially unveiling the Wizards’ name in 1997, they’ve won four playoff series, all in the first round. Washington did make it to the Eastern Conference semifinals three times over the last decade with John Wall and Bradley Beal running the show. That next-level leap always appeared close, but never came.
In 2016-17, the year of the Wizards’ only division championship since the name change, was arguably the best team to play in D.C.’s Capital One Arena. That conference-semifinal clash against the Celtics went to seven games, with the home team winning each contest. Washington was the lower seed and bowed out of the postseason.
This year felt different to start. The son of one of the best players in franchise history and a main cog of those great 70s teams, Wes Unseld Jr., was running the show after a great track record as an NBA assistant in Golden State, Orlando and Denver. He perfectly combined the best parts of the past because he lived it up close, seeing where a successful NBA team needs to go development of its players such as Steph Curry and Nikola Jokić.
Only problem is Washington has gone 13-22 since that start, with one of the worst single-game losses in franchise history taking place Tuesday night, leading by as many as 35 points in the second quarter, only to lose 116-115 to the Clippers, allowing Luke Kennard to score seven unanswered points in the game’s final nine seconds to steal the win.
Washington’s win probability topped 90 percent for most of the game, with long stretches above 99 percent. From there, it was the textbook definition of sitting back, something all coaches fear their players subconsciously do after holding a mammoth lead. This doesn’t have the stakes of that Patriots-Falcons Super Bowl a few years back. It looks every bit just as sad how many things had to go wrong for the Wizards to lose this game and hit a low point almost two months after believing a new plateau could be reached imminently.
The game’s final sequence is infuriating. The Wizards are up 6 with 10.9 seconds to go and Washington color commentator and former Wizard Drew Gooden is already talking about how a “win is still a win,” despite the horrible second-half effort and it’s a game where “you don’t even shower” to talk about how to avoid a situation like that again. As Gooden finished that sentence, Kennard’s 3-pointer from the Tidal Basin swished.
Washington first needed a timeout because it couldn’t inbound the ball and avoided the 5-second rule and a turnover. The Clippers defense looked prepared. The Wizards were upset and wanted to just move on with their lethargic motion on both offensive plays up 3. The second time around, Washington’s time was up, just as Kyle Kuzma attempted to pass the ball to Spencer Dinwiddie.
And of course, the Clippers get into the front court with plenty of time to get off a solid shot. Credit to Kennard for finding a good look and standing close enough to Beal to draw a brush-by of contact, somehow getting an and-1 with his shot not being disrupted by the Wizards’ star even a little bit. It was a beyond-horrible call at a time of the game where officials need to only bring out their whistles in must-use situations. This was at the opposite end of the spectrum. I’ve seen the replay 100 times. I’m incredulous it was called.
Even with that from the official, it’s not his fault he was able to make a game-changing call. The Wizards let the game consistently slip away. With even below-average — but still sustainable — defense in the third and fourth quarters, Washington wins and can deal with the luxury of a bad performance in a win. Now, Unseld’s squad has even more soul-searching to do after an excruciating loss.
Let’s skip over the Kuzma baseball-style pass for a possible game-winner. It rolled out of bounds. Game over. The Wizards gave the game away. There’s no other conclusion. They gave up. It’s historically bad. And talk of Beal being dealt before the NBA’s trade deadline on Feb. 10 will only intensify. Why would he want to stay when a team he leads can have its bottom fall out that quickly instead of making baskets for a title contender? That’s what Washington must figure out from here. How can they make something positive of this once-impressive season?