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Wizards' confidence skyrockets: 'If we play to our abilities, we can't be stopped'

Wizards' confidence skyrockets: 'If we play to our abilities, we can't be stopped'

CLEVELAND -- Before Saturday's game tipped off, Scott Brooks didn't care much about the pats on the back his team received for losing on Feb. 6 at Verizon Center, ending a 17-game home winning streak. The only validation that matters is winning in the second game of a back-to-back.

"You have to go out there and play well every night. It's one thing to have a great game against the best team in the league and lose. Of course they're going to say great things about you," Brooks said of that 140-135 overtime loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers. "It doesn't mean anything. That last game means nothing."

After trailing 8-7, the Wizards (45-28) led by as many as 17 points and dominated the defending champs at Quicken Loans Arena on Saturday night behind a combined 64 points and 17 assists from the starting backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal.

The Cavs kept making a push to get back on top. They cut a 40-26 deficit after the first quarter to 65-59 with 1:03 left in the second. They trimmed a 71-61 halftime deficit to 92-89 with 1:28 left in the third. They got a 107-98 disadvantage down to 109-105 in the fourth, but in the end it was a 127-115 loss.

It puts Cleveland's hold to the No. 1 seed in the East in doubt. They're just one-half game ahead of the Boston Celtics. It keeps the No. 3 Wizards one game ahead of the No. 4 Toronto Raptors, but big picture it means more than any of that. 

Wall was unstoppable. It didn't matter if the Cavs (47-25) went under the screens because he'd hit the jumper. If they went over he'd get to the rim. If they blitzed him he'd either split the double-team or make the simple pass to find the open man for a clean look. 

"Whenever I get to knock down my first two mid-ranges, I was in a rhythm early of making shots," said Wall, who began making his first eight shots and finished 14-for-21 en route to his 47th double-double. "After that they started pressing up more and I started getting to the basket."

Kyrie Irving was no match for the second consecutive time in the matchup. He shot 8-for-24 before. He was 8-for-23 with just four assists this time.

"When John is shooting like that, because you know he's going to get those guys involved, they're a very tough team to beat," LeBron James said. "They've got so many guys that complement one another. Great starting five, great bench and that was without (Bojan) Bogdanovic, too."

Bogdanovic was a late scratch because of back tightness, but the more experienced and poised team down the stretch when stops were needed? That was the Wizards coming through and not the team that won the NBA title a year ago.

With 5:29 left in the game, Wall took over the team during a timeout. They'd gotten the lead back up to 115-105 after a putback from Kelly Oubre. Their point guard wanted to make sure the Cavs, who needed a Hail Mary three-pointer from James to force overtime a month ago, weren't given any daylight. He reinforced to them what to look for, what to take away and what to allow but never to lose the intensity that got them to that point.

"The thing that I see, the improvement as each month has gone by is his leadership," Brooks said of Wall. "That's a prime example when the game could go either way ... the voice of our leaders have to step up in the huddle. I thought John was tremendous throughout the game."

Cleveland sill won the season series 2-1, but winning on their floor is important to the Wizards who aspire to at least get to the conference finals. They've already clinched their third playoff berth in four years, but they only got to the semis and bowed out twice in six games. 

"We don't want to go into the playoffs and have to face those guys never having won against them in the regular season." Wall said. 

Markieff Morris, who has battled a sinus infection and foul trouble as he has struggled to regain his form since the All-Star break, anchored the middle in a 31-point fourth quarter for the small lineup. 

He has been salty about the matchup since the last loss. He played 11 of 12 minutes to end it and only shot 1-for-4 but did the intangible things to get them over the hump, but before that he faced up Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson and James to get crucial baskets.

"Those are great players they got but we feel as though we're the best team in the league," said Morris, who has never been to the postseason in his previous six seasons. "If we play to our abilities, we can't be stopped."

[RELATED: VIDEO: Jason Smith knees LeBron James in the groin]

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What the Wizards hope to clean up in their final two games of the season

What the Wizards hope to clean up in their final two games of the season

Individual progress and development has taken a front seat over wins and losses for the Wizards in Orlando, as Washington remains winless in the NBA's restart, now at 0-6 and 0-9 overall, if you include the exhibition schedule. So, as they ponder their final two games of the season - against the Celtics and Bucks - what would more would the coaching staff like to see?

Head coach Scott Brooks has been trying to drill in some lessons to his young players and he wants to see some strides in key areas. He held a lengthy film session on Saturday, but did not get what he was hoping for in Sunday's loss to Oklahoma City.

"They’re all teachable moments," Brooks said. "We can’t keep making the same mistakes over and over. I said [at halftime] ‘either you’re not understanding it or I’m not doing a good job of explaining it.’"

As for specifics, Brooks said he wants his team to do a better job of stopping the ball on defense. Opponents are getting into the lane off the dribble far too easily and it is dismantling their defensive gameplan.

He also wants his team to execute better with outside shots. The Wizards are 21st out of the 22 teams in Orlando in three-pointers made (9.0/g), attempts (27.8/g) and percentage (32.3%). Not having Davis Bertans and Bradley Beal has done them no favors in those categories.

RELATED: WIZARDS FALL TO 0-6 IN BUBBLE

And perhaps most noticeable to Brooks has been the team's tendency to be pushed around physically. 

"You’ve gotta make a stand," Brooks said. "I thought [the Thunder's] physicality in the start of the game bothered us and it put us back on our heels. We played timid."

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Brooks highlighted rookie Rui Hachimura as a player who could put up more of a fight. On Sunday, Hachimura matched up at times with Chris Paul, who did a good job preventing him from reaching his favorite spots on the floor.

"You have to catch it deeper and go right through the guy’s chest. He’s going to learn that," Brooks said. "He’s still learning the league and the defenses that are going to be thrown at him."

Ish Smith is the most experienced player in the Wizards' rotation with 10 years of NBA service. He thinks the Wizards collectively are allowing other teams to be the aggressors. He says they need to cut harder on offense and be more assertive initiating contact on defense.

But overall, he thinks the young players on the team are learning that games with higher stakes are played differently.

"It’s such a good time for us because everybody that’s here is trying to get to the playoffs. So, they’re playing at a high, high level," he said. 

"Sometimes, no offense to the regular season and all 82 games, but some games you catch a team on a back-to-back or with injuries and different things. This is a good thing for all of us, to show us the level that you have to play at. The physicality that you have to play with, the level that you have to play at not just to make it to the playoffs but to be a champion."

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5 takeaways from Wizards' loss to Thunder, as they fall to 0-6 in restart

5 takeaways from Wizards' loss to Thunder, as they fall to 0-6 in restart

The Washington Wizards lost to the Oklahoma City Thunder 121-103 on Sunday afternoon in Orlando. Here are five takeaways from what went down...

The losing continues

Disney World is said to be the place 'Where Dreams Come True,' but after nine total games in the restart the Wizards are still dreaming of their first win.

Okay, that was corny. But there are only so many ways to say the same thing over and over. The Wizards are getting what they wanted in terms of player development but have done nothing to dispute the fact they were the worst team in the standings invited to Orlando.

On Sunday against the Thunder, they never once looked like a team capable of the upset. They went down 10-0 early and never recovered, ultimately losing by 18 points.

The more the Wizards lose, the stranger things could get in the standings. They now have to win their final two games to avoid the bizarre situation of having a worse record, but also worse lottery odds, than the Charlotte Hornets. And if they lose their final two, they will also pass the Chicago Bulls in that regard.

We are close to being ensured of total draft lottery chaos. It seems obvious one of the three teams is going to get really unlucky thanks to the NBA's lottery rule change.

No offense

The Wizards were predicted by many to have some trouble offensively in the bubble without Bradley Beal and Davis Bertans and their combined 45.9 points per game. That has gone according to expectations, as their scoring has dropped off a cliff through six games now.

The Wizards entered Sunday's game with a 102.7 offensive rating, which is third-worst among the 22 teams in Orlando and nearly eight points below their season average (110.5). And they struggled yet again, only scoring 103 points against the Thunder. They had only 48 points at halftime.

The Wizards shot just 41.3 percent from the field. They went 9-for-36 (25%) from three in what was just a dreadful day from the perimeter.

It didn't help their cause that Shabazz Napier was out with an ankle injury. He is one of the most gifted scorers and best shooters remaining on the roster. 

It might be tough for the Wizards to reverse this trend before they head home. Their two remaining opponents -- the Celtics and Bucks -- each rank top-four in defensive rating.

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Bonga played well

The biggest bright spot for the Wizards in this game was arguably Isaac Bonga, who came through with a solid game of 14 points and eight rebounds. He had some rough moments defensively guarding some really good players like Chris Paul and Danilo Gallinari, but overall he played well and showed flashes of what he could provide the Wizards next season if he sticks around.

Bonga is in an interesting category of the Wizards' roster where it is difficult to project whether he will be a part of the rotation next season, without knowing the makeup of their roster. Other young guys like Rui Hachimura, Thomas Bryant and Troy Brown Jr. are pretty much certain to play key roles, barring something unforeseen. But Bonga is right on the line because he plays a position the Wizards could stand to upgrade in the offseason.

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There is value in what he does due to his versatility and length. But the Wizards may also be able to find someone who gives them more at the three-spot. His best role next season is probably as a glue guy for the second unit.

Though his numbers were boosted by garbage time, Jerome Robinson also had himself a day in what was a bounceback performance. He had 19 points and shot 4-for-9 from three.

A model for Schofield

There is no getting around the fact that Admiral Schofield has not had the best showing in the restart. He lost a bunch of weight and came into camp by all accounts in great shape, but it just hasn't translated to the floor.

Schofield continues to look like a player who doesn't have a defined role or a good idea of what his niche will ultimately be. But that's okay, he is still a rookie and was a second round pick. Overnight success was never expected for him.

The role that could lead to long-term success for Schofield may have been on display in this game with Thunder wing Luguentz Dort. He went undrafted last summer, but has quickly become a reliable piece for OKC as a physical defensive disruptor. He is built a bit like Schofield, just a few inches shorter. And he uses his strength and quickness to wreak havoc on players of all positions.

Schofield could bring some of the same attributes to the table, but in watching the two play you can see a big difference in their approach. Dort is relentlessly aggressive, initiating contact all over the place, likely knowing that no one can match his strength. Schofield has that type of force, he just hasn't found a way to use it yet. 

Napier should be careful

Napier's injury was just the latest negative development for him in what has not been a great stay at Disney World. In five games, he's averaging just 10.2 points on 41.9 percent shooting. It is a small sample size, but he just hasn't taken off as one of the team's primary scorers as it seemed he likely would.

Now that he's injured, it would make sense if Napier plays things very safely in the final two games. He is set to hit free agency at the end of the season and, with less money set to go around due to the coronavirus' effect on league finances, he can't afford to hurt his stock any further. He definitely can't risk a serious injury.

The other side of that coin would be that maybe Napier sees an opportunity to finish strong. If he doesn't do that, it will be fair to wonder if he should have opted out of the restart like Bertans did.

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