- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 5, 2023

Kyle Kuzma called Friday’s 124-116 loss — a game in which Washington led by as much as 20 —  to the Portland Trail Blazers a “master class” in how to lose a game. 

Turns out, he spoke too soon. 

The next night, Washington again blew another 20-point lead — becoming the first team in 25 years to lose when leading by at least 20 on consecutive days.  

“It sucks,” Wizards coach Wes Unseld Jr. said after Saturday’s 125-123 loss to the Brooklyn Nets, a game that saw Washington squander a 23-point lead.

Nothing can ruin the goodwill that a six-game winning streak generated quite like two back-to-back disastrous losses. Just last week, the Wizards were the hottest team in the NBA. Now, they’re spinning once again thanks to two straight collapses. 

The extreme highs and lows have made this season particularly frustrating for the Wizards, a team marred in mediocrity with a 24-28 record. But collapses have been a Wizards specialty over the past few years. 

Since Unseld was hired in 2021, Washington has blown four games in which it held at least a 20-point lead. In addition to Washington’s two recent losses, the Wizards also squandered games against the Los Angeles Clippers (Washington led by 35) and Houston Rockets (led by 23) last season. 

After each of Washington’s two straight losses, Unseld credited the opposing teams for making game-changing adjustments. On Friday, the Trail Blazers started to deploy a switch-heavy defense in the second half — causing Washington’s offense to go cold as Portland, with a heavy dose of 3-pointers, shot its way back into the game. Then on Saturday, the Nets gave the Wizards problems when they deployed a small-ball lineup that did a better job of forcing turnovers. 

Washington had no answer either time.

“Everything happens so fast, and you have to make split-second decisions,” Wizards big man Kristaps Porzingis said. “The same way for it as us as players, the same it is for coaches. … Nobody’s perfect, but we’re all trying to do the best we can. 

“Through everything, through the ups and downs, the most important thing is we stay together.” 

To be fair to Unseld, the coach did try to make tactical adjustments as the Wizards were spiraling out of control. Against Portland, for instance, the Wizards’ defense started to become more aggressive on the perimeter in an attempt to shut down guard Anfernee Simons — who hit a barrage of 3s in the third. But in doing so, that opened up the lane for Damian Lillard and others to drive. 

The blame for Washington’s collapses can be more than shared. In Brooklyn, the Wizards had 16 turnovers that led to 23 points. That’s on players to execute and protect the ball. They’re also tasked with defending, which they didn’t do particularly well in the second half of either game. Nets guard Cam Thomas scored a career-high 44 points in just 29 minutes of action.

Washington’s front office isn’t absent of fault, either. General manager Tommy Sheppard has constructed Washington’s rosters since 2019 and Washington is on track to miss the playoffs for the fourth time in five seasons. And Sheppard is the one who hired Unseld.

“I want to come back in my next life as Wiz GM/president Play-In Tommy Sheppard — whiff on every top-15 pick, overpay (Bradley) Beal, build an eternal 9-seed, get protected by media cronies,” The Ringer’s Bill Simmons wrote recently. “He’s Ernie Grunfeld with better PR.” 

Of course, Sheppard ultimately works for owner Ted Leonsis — who has faced increasing criticism since he declared in 2019 the Wizards would “never, ever tank,” which shed light on the Wizards’ roster-building approach. 

So, now what? It would be surprising to see the Wizards change their approach to this week’s deadline just because of two straight losses, so trading someone like Beal or Kuzma appears to be unlikely. And the team will still try to make a push for the play-in tournament. 

After Friday’s loss, Porzingis said he felt Washington’s identity was starting to change during its previous six-game winning streak. He pointed to Beal’s return from a hamstring injury and how the roster was collectively starting to gel. 

That changed quickly the following night: Beal sat out Saturday as he missed his 20th contest of the season with a foot injury. 

“It’s the NBA,” Porzingis said. “It’s ups and downs. One night you feel like you’re invincible and the next night you lose to a team you should have beat. It’s just the nature of our season.”

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

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