- The Washington Times
Thursday, December 31, 2020

Bradley Beal dropped his head, bent double and rested his hands on his knees for several seconds. The Washington Wizards guard had what seemed to be a clear lane to the hoop, receiving a pass from Thomas Bryant before going up strong.

But Chicago Bulls guard Coby White flew into Beal’s path, and Beal lost the ball and a lost a chance to take a one-point lead with just 15 seconds remaining. So Beal stood there, the early realizations likely setting in that the best chance to quell the season-opening losing streak had just been fumbled in the paint.

The Bulls held on, 133-130, to take their second straight game off the winless Wizards. There were more issues Thursday night than Beal’s miss — that was just one small part at the end of another defeat. Chicago shot nearly 60 percent from the field through the first three quarters, and while Washington played it tight during the fourth quarter, tight isn’t always enough.

The Bulls had taken a lead as large as 11 points in the third quarter before the Wizards pulled back within reach. With about four minutes to go, Raul Neto drilled back-to-back 3-pointers to give his team the lead. But that edge didn’t remain, and it came down to Beal’s late attempt going awry in the lane to begin the season 0-5.

“None of us want to be 0-5, but I still [am] very confident in our group,” Wizards coach Scott Brooks said. “This is not the worst thing that’ll happen to any of us. We’re not happy with the start, but we can play better.”

In the Wizards’ first four games of the season, large scoring outputs still led to losses. There were narrow defeats against the Philadelphia 76ers and Orlando Magic, the kind from which positives could be taken before fourth-quarter collapses negated the offensive efficiency from before.

And then there was Tuesday’s loss against the Bulls, a matchup between two winless teams that fell Chicago’s way. The Wizards shot 27 percent from three-point range and turned the ball over 19 times. After the loss, Russell Westbrook said the team’s defensive intensity hadn’t been strong enough. Beal stayed at Capital One Arena long after the loss, studying film and searching for answers.

“We’ll be fine,” Rui Hachimura said. “It’s going to take time, but we’re going to be fine.”

If there can be such a thing as a must-win game so early in a season, that’s how Thursday felt. Chicago was shorthanded, missing Lauri Markkanen, Ryan Arcidiacono, Tomas Satoransky and Chandler Hutchison due to the NBA’s health and safety protocols.

Washington received a boost, too, with the return of Hachimura. The forward had missed the opening four games with conjunctivitis. Hachimura had an immediate impact, knocking down his first shot attempt of the season — part of his 17 points. He completed an and-1 layup through contact, and he flipped a behind-the-back pass to Bryant for a dunk.

While he played well in his return, that output wasn’t enough to stave off another defeat.

“We’re OK,” Beal said. “We’re not the only team in this situation. There are a lot of team who are struggling, who aren’t winning, teams that are playoff teams, too. We’ve just got to be better with the guys that we have. You can’t make that excuse, ‘Ah, we’re not talented enough, we don’t have the guys.’ I think that’s BS.”

But Thursday continued some troubling trends. Even with Westbrook’s fourth triple-double of the season and 28 points each from Beal and Bryant, defensive discrepancies remained. There were the good moments — such as late in the game, when Beal blocked Zach LaVine — but there were others when help defense wasn’t present or players didn’t fight through screens.

That was especially noticeable in the third quarter, with the Bulls using a 9-0 run to create separation. They reached triple-digits on the scoreboard before the third quarter concluded. Chicago’s lead swelled to 11 before treys from Troy Brown and Neto late in the period shrunk the deficit to seven at the break.

“We’ve all got to be in unison,” Beal said. “We’re not in unison every single time. You know, there’s a lot of inconsistencies down the floor. We’ll get a stop or two, then they’ll get four or five buckets. We’ve got to be more consistent. More consistent. We’re showing we can do it — we have spurts where we can do it — but consistency is key.”

Still, Washington had an opportunity to steal a late lead from a matchup that looked lost at points in the third quarter. Off an inbounds play, Beal received the pass from Bryant on a back-cut with about 15 seconds.

Brooks thought Beal might’ve been fouled when he saw the play unfold live, but he realized later the ball simply slipped out of Beal’s hands as he rose to the rim. That’s the way this season has gone so far, just five games in yet full of what-ifs and plenty of losing.

“Everybody’s pissed,” Beal said, followed by a pause. “But in a good way. We’re pissed off.”

• Andy Kostka can be reached at akostka@washingtontimes.com.

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