An unusually populous pregame locker room was unusually quiet Wednesday night at Capital One Arena.
Nearly every player on one side of the Washington Wizards’ dressing area was planted in his seat more than an hour before they lost to the Cleveland Cavaliers, 114-106. Most nights before games, in the 30-minute period before tip-off in which reporters are permitted to be in the room, the players tend to be on the move, whether coming or going from the court to warm up, getting last-minute needs addressed with the medical staff or simply joking around with one another.
But Wednesday, the eve of the trade deadline, there was minimal action. Jordan Poole walked in and greeted everyone at one point, looking for something. Kyle Kuzma entered and crouched at his locker, getting his various compression garments in order. Anthony Gill chatted quietly with members of the PR staff.
Otherwise, players slumped into their seats staring intensely, silently, at their phones.
Call it pre-trade deadline jitters for a young roster that knows its front office is looking to make moves. The Wizards, at 9-41 and in the first year of a rebuild, are looking to acquire young talent and draft capital in exchange for impactful, experienced players such as Kuzma and Tyus Jones as Thursday’s 3 p.m. deadline looms.
“It’s the most interesting time of the year for an NBA player, that’s for sure,” Corey Kispert said. “. . . It’s part of the life of playing in this league. It’s kind of one of the darker sides of it. . . . It’s definitely on all of our minds, but at the same time, we’re prepared for it.”
Here’s another interpretation of the quiet: The Wizards are closing ranks. What else is a young player to do the day before some faces in that locker room might change?
“We don’t focus on the outside noise,” interim coach Brian Keefe said Tuesday after practice. “We focus on these walls in here and the people who are in this building.”
Those blinders served the Wizards well against the Cavaliers (33-16), perhaps for more than one reason. Although Washington competed well despite the loss and despite 40 points by Donovan Mitchell, Poole endured loud, hearty boos from the crowd on three occasions in the fourth quarter — after an air ball, after a missed three-pointer in isolation and one final time when he fouled out with 18 seconds to play.
The guard went scoreless, shot 0 for 5 from the field and had five assists.
It was his first scoreless game since April 2021, when Poole was in his second season with the Golden State Warriors and playing, coincidentally, against the Wizards. Keefe explained his decision to sub Poole back in late in the fourth quarter when the game was still within reach — at least on the scoreboard, if not in terms of control or momentum.
“Jordan’s one of our guys,” he said. “Jordan has made big shots for us, especially since I’ve taken over . . . so I want Jordan in those moments because he has no fear and he’s going to take the shot when it’s open. I’m always going to believe in him and go with him.”
Aside from Poole’s performance, the Wizards showed legitimate improvement against a team that flattened them twice in early January. Their offense churned behind 28 points, four rebounds and two assists from Kuzma after the forward missed Sunday’s loss to Phoenix with left shoulder soreness. Kispert continued his season-long ascent with 23 points and seven rebounds off the bench.
Individual defense on Mitchell was wanting — the Cavaliers’ centerpiece guard added eight rebounds and five assists in 38 minutes and torched the Wizards with 14-for-25 shooting.
But there were positives in other areas that Kuzma attributed to the team’s new style of defense under Keefe. The Wizards outrebounded Cleveland 47-46 — the Cavaliers were without big man Tristan Thompson, who is serving a 25-game suspension for violating the league’s drug policy — after they were trounced on the boards in the teams’ first two meetings. Daniel Gafford won his matchup against Jarrett Allen more often than not and had 14 points and a team-high 13 rebounds.
“Those two games at the top of the year in Cleveland, we were playing a different type of defensive scheme that really allowed [Allen] to cook,” Kuzma said. “So Gaff probably remembered that, played a lot more physical tonight and had a good showing.”
A rare mid-quarter turnaround was another bright spot. Usually, Washington struggles to recover from a sluggish second-half start. On Wednesday, the Wizards bounced back after the visitors scored the first seven points of the second half and stayed competitive until the end.