- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 5, 2020

The Washington Wizards’ playoff hopes in the bubble are about to pop.

Losers of four straight, including 107-98 to the Philadelphia 76ers Wednesday, they fell eight games behind the eighth-seeded Orlando Magic before the Magic played Wednesday night.

The Wizards have only four regular-season games left in the NBA’s restart and would need to be four games back of No. 8 to force a play-in round by season’s end, which the math suggests is nearly impossible now.

That doesn’t make the trip a bust.

Washington’s time at Walt Disney World isn’t over, and in the meantime, the team has seen encouraging growth in a few players, notably center Thomas Bryant and guard Troy Brown Jr. The four games have also given coach Scott Brooks a chance to experiment, and he plans to do it further in the games to come.

“Our mission out here was to get better and get some good minutes from a lot of players and see what we had,” Brooks said. “We know eventually we’re going to be whole and really dynamic in a lot of different areas. … We’ve got a lot of good things happening for us.”

Seeing that isn’t always easy. Washington has been outscored by an average of 10.3 points per game since resuming the season, and at times, the basketball is ugly. In Monday’s 111-100 loss to the Indiana Pacers, for instance, Washington watched as Indiana went on separate runs of 20-2 and 24-6. Defense was — and remains — the Wizards’ biggest problem.

But in missing Bradley Beal, John Wall and Davis Bertans, the Wizards have been forced to find new ways to score. In doing so, Washington has adapted — expanding roles for players like Bryant.

Without Beal, Bryant has become more active. He had games of 30 and 20 points earlier in the week and recorded his third straight double-double Wednesday.

In Sunday’s loss against the Brooklyn Nets, Bryant showed off an expanded range, draining a career-high four 3-pointers on six attempts. The Wizards prefer to have Bryant score closer to the basket, but they also want him to play with energy.

Until the bubble, Bryant’s season had not gone as planned. The 24-year-old missed a month with a foot injury, and despite signing a three-year, $25 million deal last summer, general manager Tommy Sheppard publicly acknowledged the need to find a rim protector in the future — not exactly a vote of confidence in Bryant’s abilities.

Lately, Bryant has resembled more of the player that was an unexpected surprise during the 2018-19 season. He pumps his hands up after made dunks. He yells out to no one in particular. He crashes the rim with energy. And against Philadelphia, Bryant was even impressive on the defensive end — blocking four shots and handling All-Star center Joel Embiid’s physicality. Embiid still scored 30 points, but Brooks said afterward that it was the “best defensive game I’ve ever seen him play.”

The Wizards hope it can continue.

“That energy is what we need,” Brown said. “He’s out there being vocal. To me, it’s Thomas Bryant. That’s what everybody knows him as. To see him out there playing well … we’re all happy to see that.”

Bryant can partially thank Brown for his resurgence. The two have natural chemistry when sharing the floor, and Brown has emerged as a facilitator for the big man. Brown’s playmaking has been a major focus for Washington, and in the final five minutes against the Pacers, Brooks trusted him to be the sole point guard on the floor — benching Ish Smith and Shabazz Napier.

Asked why he went with Brown, Brooks said he liked the look, saying the Brown-led lineup “played with a lot of desperation.” He even left open the possibility of starting the 21-year-old at point guard in an upcoming game.

No one would mistake Brown for Washington’s starting point guard of the future — the job still belongs to John Wall when healthy — but by using him in that spot now, Washington can evaluate in different positions.

Brooks said he wants Brown to become a “positionless player,” a label that was dreaded years ago but is now increasingly valued in the modern NBA.

“These are great minutes,” Brooks said. “You aren’t just given minutes to give ‘em. Our players have to earn ‘em and if they’re not playing well, we’re going to throw other guys in. That’s why we’re here. We’re here to get better and we’re here to improve.”

Bryant finished with 19 points and 10 rebounds and Jerome Robinson added 19 points off the bench to lead the Wizards on Wednesday. Brown scored 17.

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