- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 27, 2021

As Bradley Beal sat on the bench in the final minutes of Tuesday’s 107-88 loss to the Houston Rockets, the Wizards guard placed his thumbs on his forehead, forming a pyramidlike shape with his hands and shook his head. He muttered something to himself as he kept his eyes closed. 

It was another frustrating night for Beal. The Wizards lost again, letting another fourth-quarter slip away. This time, the defeat was to old teammate John Wall — who put the game out of reach for the Wizards as Wall scored all nine points in a 9-2 run minutes earlier. In the process, Wall boastfully celebrated and trash-talked Russell Westbrook, leading to a double technical for both. 

Heading into Wednesday’s game at New Orleans, the Wizards (3-10) hold the league’s worst record.  

For all their problems — and there are many — perhaps the most agonizing aspect of this season for the Wizards is that they haven’t found the right formula to close out games. Tuesday’s loss was just another example: Washington only trailed by five to start the fourth before spiraling out of control. 

What’s the reason? Well, there’s no simple answer. But in posing the question to Beal, he seemed to have a clear idea.

“I always put that on me,” said Beal, who had a game-high 33 points. “That’s on me. I’ve got to close out the game. I’ve got to be better. A lot of (missed) easy shots. I turned the ball over.” 

Beal’s comment was interesting given that he leads the league in scoring with 34.4 points per game. To start the year, the two-time All-Star has had 12 straight games of scoring at least 25 points — the longest such streak Michael Jordan did it in 1988-89. 

But a deeper dive reveals issues. 

Beal went 3-of-8 against the Rockets in the final quarter, scoring eight points. That’s not a terrible percentage, but Beal is shooting just 33.3% on the season in the fourth — a steep decline from his overall average (48.3%). That fourth-quarter percentage is also the worst mark of his career and down significantly from last year’s average of 44.5%. 

In the clutch — defined as games in the last five minutes in which the point differential is five points or less — Beal has been even worse. In seven contests, Beal has made just 25% of his shots on 20 attempts. The Wizards are just 1-6 in those games. 

Still, the blame can’t be placed solely on Beal’s shoulders. As a team, the Wizards have registered a 121.1 defensive rating in the fourth — nearly seven points worse than the next team, the Brooklyn Nets. The team’s offensive rating is just 105 — good for a -16.1 net rating, the worst in the league. 

Some of Washington’s problems trace back to availability. Westbrook has missed time with a quad injury and is still hampered by it. Since resuming play after a nearly two-week-long, coronavirus-related delay, Washington has had just 10 and 11 players available — including players like Issac Bonga and Cassius Winston who are now playing big minutes despite seldom playing beforehand. 

Washington has six players out because of COVID-19, names that include Rui Hachimura and Davis Bertans. 

“It’s tough, guys are at different positions,” Westbrook said. “Guys like myself (are on a) minutes restriction. There’s a lot of variables that go into that. It’s not as easy as it may look.” 

If there is a silver lining, eight of Washington’s 13 games have been a five-point game within the final five minutes. That means the Wizards have been competitive, and could arguably turn things around. 

To do that, they’ll have to start cleaning up mistakes. Coach Scott Brooks said Washington had too many defensive lapses, committed turnovers and couldn’t make enough shots against the Rockets

“We’ve got to get better,” Brooks said. “We’ve got to figure it out. We will. We’ve got some good players. … We’re right there, we’re battling.”

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