NEW YORK — If the Washington Wizards felt close to something after their positive performances in losses to Orlando and Philadelphia — a modest breakthrough, an unprecedented string of three strong games this season, maybe even a win — that warm and fuzzy feeling slipped back out of reach Friday with every three-pointer that sailed into the abyss.
Progress is by no means linear, but this was one unsightly misstep: The Wizards lost, 124-97, to the middling Brooklyn Nets after proving themselves capable of at least keeping pace with some of the more exciting teams in the Eastern Conference. They allowed the Nets to gobble up all the offensive rebounds they could ever hope for, took wild attempts that resulted in a 6-for-33 shooting night from the three-point line and had lackluster output from their centerpieces.
No surprise, Brooklyn ate them for dinner.
“Our effort defensively wasn’t there,” point guard Tyus Jones said, diagnosing the fatal issue with Washington’s game that cropped up in a loose third quarter. “I think we let the offensive side of the ball affect our effort, attention to detail, things like that. You can’t do that. We’ve done that a number of times this year, and you’ve got to grow in that area and learn from it.”
Washington’s offense was off from the start and grew frantic as the game wore on.
The Wizards (3-18) were positioned as Jordan Poole’s team at the start of the year, but they go the way of Kyle Kuzma more often than not. There wasn’t a ton working for the forward Friday, and it set a tone for the night.
Even with his struggles, Kuzma lead the team with 17 points on 8-for-17 shooting from the field and had three rebounds.
Deni Avdija (15 points, seven rebounds) operated as his second-in-command on offense as Poole struggled to bring any spark and finished with eight points, two rebounds and two assists. The guard spent the fourth quarter on the bench with his hood over his head up as rookie Bilal Coulibaly took his place alongside the rest of the starters.
“They were topping him, keeping him from coming up the floor. I thought they were very handsy and aggressive with him,” Unseld said of Brooklyn’s defense on Poole. “… So it makes it difficult at times to create separation.”
Brooklyn, meanwhile, found life in pockets up and down their roster — Day’Ron Sharpe ruffled the Wizards with 15 points and 11 rebounds off the bench, while Mikal Bridges led four starters in double figures with 21 points.
Washington led for only a moment — less than 20 seconds, thanks to a three-pointer from Danilo Gallinari in the second quarter — but kept it close in the first half thanks in part to a defensive effort that held the Nets to 38.9 percent shooting and three three-pointers.
But Brooklyn came out with better focus and physicality after halftime, and the Wizards showed nothing but frustration. Poor offense leeched into their defense, and the Nets muscled them out of position or straight-up bullied Washington under the basket to win the rebounding battle 55-41.
They had 20 second-chance points off 18 offensive rebounds. The Wizards mustered seven.
“I think we just let our offense dictate how we wanted to play defensively. Some guys probably felt like they didn’t get the ball, probably shot shots that they shouldn’t have,” Kuzma said.
Here’s what else to know about the Wizards’ loss:
The Wizards waived forward John Butler Jr., a two-way player out of Florida State, and signed guard Jules Bernard to a two-way contract, the team announced. Butler is expected to stay in the organization and sign with the Capital City Go-Go upon clearing waivers.
Bernard, a 6-foot-7 guard who played four years at UCLA before going undrafted in 2022, has played 40 games with the Go-Go across the past two seasons and played on Washington’s Summer League squad this year. He arrives at the perfect juncture; the Wizards are in need of extra bodies in the backcourt with Delon Wright (knee), Landry Shamet (rib), Johnny Davis (calf) and Ryan Rollins (knee) sitting out Friday.
Nonetheless, Unseld said the move was less about adding reinforcements and more about getting another look at Bernard, who is averaging 21 points, 7.8 rebounds and 4.3 assists through eight games in the G League.
“I think he’s slowed down, offensively. He’s making the right reads, making the right plays. He’s been more efficient,” Unseld said. “Then his size, his ability to guard, I think it something that could help us as well.”
As bad as the rebounding was Friday, there was one highlight. Coulibaly, who had his breakthrough game against the Nets on Nov. 12 when he scored a team-high 20 points, led the team with a season-high 10 boards. That, coupled with 11 points, gave him the first double-double of his career.