On a night when Bradley Beal had trouble getting shots to fall, it was the rest of the Wizards who stepped up and put together a high effort team win. Thomas Bryant looked every bit worth his new contract he signed in the offseason, and Rui Hachimura continued to show that he belongs.
This was the Wizards’ first chance to see the new-look Oklahoma City Thunder, coming off of an offseason in which they lost franchise cornerstone Russell Westbrook and All-NBA superstar Paul George. This was also the first chance for fans in OKC to see their new team in person. Led by Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, the Thunder looked positioned to give their fans a home opener worth being excited about. The Wizards led 52-46 at halftime, and 78-70 at the end of the third quarter. But at the beginning of the fourth quarter, the Thunder put the defensive clasps on, and held the Wizards scoreless for nearly 4 ½ minutes. Gilgeous-Alexander tied the game at 83 with just over 4 minutes left to play.
Pause here. If you’re a Wizards fan watching this game, you know how this story ends. You’ve seen this type of game countless times over the years. The Wizards build a lead, get cold, the opposing team makes a run, and close out Washington down the stretch.
Friday night was different, and that is the real story coming out of this seemingly inconsequential October road game. The Wizards responded, and buried the game emphatically. Davis Bertans hit a crucial 3-pointer that put the Wizards up five. Shortly after, Beal hit a layup which forced a Thunder timeout in the final minutes. Washington also responded defensively, and only allowed one more field goal after Gilgeous-Alexander’s bucket that tied the game. The Wizards walked away with a 12 point victory that probably shouldn’t be classified as convincing,but it sure was encouraging.
The team was led by strong efforts from Thomas Bryant and Rui Hachimura. Bryant put together a solid 21 point, 11 rebound statline, and also went 3 of 7 from three point range. The three point shooting is encouraging – Bryant was not shy about shooting from distance last year, but it appears his volume and efficiency will both increase this season. The Wizards have shown a marked shift in playstyle throughout the preseason and these first two regular season games, shooting 41 three point attempts in each regular season game. This is nearly 8 attempts higher than their average per game last season. They haven’t shot at a great clip yet this season (below 27 percent) but the willingness to shoot from distance will keep defenders honest and open up driving lanes for Beal, especially if the efficiency can pick up a bit.
And Hachimura. It is a small sample size, but the early signs are very, very encouraging. The rookie contributed 19 points on 8 of 20 shooting, and only turned the ball over once. The one blemish on the stat line was 0 of 4 from three point range. However, he was a killer from the midrange, and gave Thunder defenders problems all night. The highlight was a nifty spin move into the lane that put Danilo Gallinari on the ground in the opening minutes. If Rui keeps playing with this level of confidence and Scott Brooks keeps giving him minutes (35 minutes Friday night), Hachimura will contribute in a big way this season and hopefully place himself in the conversation as one of the league’s best rookies.
Every sound bite from Brooks and Tommy Sheppard this offseason has indicated that they expect this young team to play with a lot of effort every night, and that fans will fall in love with how hard they work. So far, so good. We saw something similar in the opener in Dallas. Although they lost, the team fought back with defensive effort and intensity and made it a close game in the final minutes.
It’s hard to say how many games this version of the Wizards will win this season. However, early signs show that they are capable of catching a team sleeping on any given night if they continue to play with this effort and energy. Everyone following the team knows this is a bit of transition season. John Wall will likely sit the entire year, so this season will give coaches and fans a chance to see which of these young players has a spot in the Wizards’ vision for the future. That puts many of these players in a weird position, almost as if this season is a tryout for them. The expectations will be raised significantly next season, with the team hoping to, once again, make a playoff run behind Wall and Beal. Because of this, fans can reasonably expect the effort to remain at a high level this season. Low effort teams and players have given Wizards’ fans headaches for years, so this season will (hopefully) be a refreshing change of pace.
The Wizards are right back at it in a back-to-back in San Antonio against the Spurs on Saturday night, before heading back to D.C. to prepare for their home opener against the Houston Rockets on October 30.