- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 10, 2021

About three hours before the Wizards took the floor Saturday night to play the Heat, the team announced guard Russell Westbrook would miss the contest with left quad soreness.

About two hours later, Washington coach Scott Brooks learned guard Bradley Beal would also be unavailable — caught in the web of the NBA’s health and safety protocols.

And then just two minutes into Saturday’s matchup, center Thomas Bryant fell to the floor, clutching his knee and pounding the court. Washington announced Sunday Bryant had suffered a season-ending partially torn ACL.

The trifecta of unfortunate circumstances left the Wizards without their top three scorers, although bench pieces played up in the 128-124 defeat. Beal is expected back Monday, but without Bryant long-term and uncertainty surrounding Westbrook’s quad, any headway in the league standings for a 2-8 Washington team might come from unexpected sources.

“You hate to lose the game, but our young players are players that haven’t had a lot of experience, and then [rookie Deni Avdija],” coach Scott Brooks said. “Those guys got a little bit better today.”

Avdija chipped in 20 points, and second-year professional Rui Hachimura added 17. Garrison Mathews, a 24-year-old guard on a two-way contract, led the team with 22 points, playing a large part in the Wizards’ 69 bench points.

Still, a fully healthy Miami squad fended off Washington’s late comeback attempt, leaving Brooks’ team in last place in the Eastern Conference. Even with Beal returning Monday, losing Bryant leaves a hole in the Wizards’ frontcourt.

The 23-year-old averaged 14.3 points and 6.1 rebounds to begin the season. He missed time last year with a foot injury, but fully healthy — and with Beal and Westbrook providing open looks — Bryant had taken a significant step forward early in the campaign.

Without the Indiana product, the Wizards will rely on Robin Lopez and Moritz Wagner down low. The pair combined to score 26 points against the Heat.

Westbrook’s quad injury is different than the one that beleaguered him last season when he was a member of the Houston Rockets. And while Brooks said Westbrook wanted to play through it, the coach said Saturday that Westbrook was “pretty sore.” He’ll miss his second straight game Monday, the team announced Sunday.

Washington avoids a lengthy absence for Beal, though. The Wizards have managed to avoid any positive cases thus far, although there have been cases on teams they’ve faced.

In the past week, Kevin Durant entered a seven-day quarantine after he was exposed to someone who tested positive. The Wizards faced the 76ers on Wednesday, and then Seth Curry tested positive for the coronavirus Thursday.

Following Washington’s loss to the Boston Celtics on Friday, Beal met on the court with forward Jayson Tatum, and the pair talked in close proximity. After Tatum tested positive Saturday, Beal needed to sit out due to contact tracing.

“Can’t predict it. It’s unpredictable,” Brooks said. “We’re going to do all the things we need to do — the social distancing, the hygiene, the masks, the zoom calls, no shoot arounds, trying to keep our guys and our staff and our families, it’s important to keep everybody healthy.

“This is a serious thing. It’s a world problem, we all need to get by it,” Brooks continued. “And I can’t predict what’s going to happen tomorrow, or the next game, or whatever is going on with the team. I just know we have to do what we have to do and keep ourselves as safe as possible, and there’s no guarantees.”

The unpredictability has been felt around the league. The NBA decided against using the same bubble format that worked so well this summer — a three-month stint in which no players tested positive — and allowed teams to play in their home arenas.

The 76ers played shorthanded against the Denver Nuggets on Saturday with just seven healthy players available. The Celtics and Heat game on Sunday was postponed after positive cases on both sides. The Dallas Mavericks also closed their team facilities Sunday after two positive tests.

But the season continues, and with the uncertainty, there’s greater importance given to squad depth. While Washington lost without its top three scorers Saturday, the performance showed those understudies could remain competitive.

Depth is important most years, but it could be even more imperative in this 2020-21 campaign.

“It’s certainly a weird year for everybody, in and out of the league,” Lopez said. “I think it’s great that we have so many guys on our roster that can step up. It’s unfortunate that guys are getting knocked by the protocol, but that’s kind of the nature of the NBA. If somebody’s out, the next guy steps up.”

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