- The Washington Times
Monday, January 17, 2022

Before games, Wizards assistant Joseph Blair normally uploads a short video from courtside for his thousands of Instagram followers. But there was no time to do it before Monday’s contest — with Blair suddenly tasked to be the acting coach of the Wizards.

Things were moving fast for the Wizards in the hours before their afternoon matinee against the Philadelphia 76ers. Blair was named acting coach, with Pat Delany — already filling in for Wes Unseld Jr. (COVID-19) — sidelined by the virus. The team also found out that Bradley Beal would make his return from a three-game absence after being in the NBA’s health and safety protocols. 

Despite all the shuffling, the Wizards responded with a complete performance and a 117-98 victory over the 76ers on MLK Day. Seven players — including Beal (13 points) — reached double figures as Washington cruised past the team that eliminated them from the playoffs last season. 

The balanced scoring, led by Montezl Harrell (18), helped the Wizards withstand 32 points from Philadelphia center Joel Embiid. Washington’s bench was also a major factor, outsourcing the 76ers by 36 (63-27). 

“This was one of our better wins of the season,” said forward Kyle Kuzma, who had a double-double with 15 points and 16 rebounds. “It felt great to not lose or be in close games. This was probably our blowout win since maybe Memphis.” 

Indeed, the Wizards’ 18-point win was their largest since beating the Grizzlies by 28 on Nov. 5 — the ninth game of the season. Much has changed since then, with the Wizards cooling off from a hot 10-3 start to finding them battling for a playoff spot, as they are now. The victory improved the Wizards to 23-21, currently ninth in the East. 

As it has every team, the virus has challenged the Wizards. Blair became the Wizards’ third acting coach of the season, and the last one, Delany, got to coach only one game before entering protocols. 

But Blair is used to adapting on the fly. Long before he was ever a coach, the 47-year-old, an overseas star, once abruptly stopped playing in the Greek Basket League after his team didn’t come through paying him. So, the former big man packed up and went back to America — joining the Harlem Globetrotters under the nickname “Hair Blair.” He had a big afro, you see. 

Against the 76ers, Blair had to determine the rotation for a suddenly crowded roster. With Beal’s return, the Wizards had a healthy group for the first time all season — and as a result, notable players such as Deni Avdija, Davis Bertans and Aaron Holiday got squeezed out of the rotation.  

Blair, though, had help in ways he didn’t expect. In the first quarter, when starter Daniel Gafford drew his third foul, Blair turned to Harrell to sub in. Harrell, instead, had a suggestion: Go with Thomas Bryant — the center’s 6-foot-10 size would be a better matchup against Embiid, Blair said.

“That’s what good teammates do, quite frankly,” Blair said. “It changed the complexity of the game.”

“It’s not really something I’ve done before, but it comes with experience being in the league,” Harrell said. 

The move worked. Despite Embiid scoring more than 30 points in 10 of his last 11 outings, he did so on 20 shots. Bryant’s ability to stretch the floor also freed up room for the Wizards in the paint as it brought Embiid farther away from the basket. When both players were out of the game, Harrell then feasted on the 76ers’ second unit.

As the Wizards’ lead grew, the contest served as a reminder of just how much Washington’s roster has changed in only a few months. Back in late May and early June, the 76ers smoked Washington in five games — a first-round playoff exit for the Wizards that highlighted the gap between them and the NBA’s elite. That led to the Wizards pulling the trigger on a complicated five-team trade that saw Washington ship out star point guard Russell Westbrook in exchange for a bevy of role players. 

The 76ers, of course, are a different team, too. All season long, they’ve been without disgruntled star Ben Simmons — whose ongoing trade demand has led him to sit out and rack up millions in fines. Philadelphia was also missing pieces like Danny Green (hip) and Matisse Thybulle (ankle), two wings that would have helped the 76ers’ leaky defense. 

But that hardly mattered to the Capital One Arena crowd, who erupted in the second quarter when Kuzma put Embiid on a poster with an eye-popping dunk.

The dunk was arguably the exclamation point on a statement win. Afterward, Harrell dumped ice water on Blair to celebrate the coach’s first win as an NBA coach.

“My back is pretty soaked right now,” Blair said with a smile. 

• Matthew Paras can be reached at mparas@washingtontimes.com.

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