The Washington Wizards fared better in their second matchup of the season with the Philadelphia 76ers, exactly a month after the first, in nearly every facet. But the concept of growth is a gnarly thing this season: Sure, there were plenty of things for Coach Wes Unseld Jr. to commend after his team’s 131-126 loss Wednesday at Capital One Arena — his team shot a whopping 56.5 percent thanks to successful ball movement, Jordan Poole and Bilal Coulibaly had positive stretches, and the 76ers never led by more than seven.
But Joel Embiid was better, too, one-upping his own awesome performance from Nov. 6 by a bucket, scoring 50 points and overshadowing all that growth by leading his team to its second win of the season against Washington.
The Wizards (3-17) faltered where it mattered most — on defense at times, on the boards, with minor execution issues down the stretch — and a strong performance ended in a loss. Unseld was as outwardly frustrated as you’ll see him after the game, but not because of his team’s effort. He cited free throws as the catalyst for his team’s defeat: a disparity of 34 attempts for Philadelphia to eight for the Wizards.
“That’s tough to overcome. I know they’re good, I know Embiid gets them, but our three drivers — Deni [Avdija], Jordan [Poole] and [Kyle Kuzma] — zero. That’s a tough pill,” Unseld said. “. . . There’s a disparity there. That’s a problem. It’s really frustrating because our guys are competing. They’re playing the right way.”
Unseld’s examples of “the right way” were legit. Washington had a reasonable 12 turnovers and a season-high 39 assists as it paired its fast-paced offense with some efficient shooting. But Avdija was the only starter with a positive plus/minus defensive rating, and Philadelphia took advantage. Embiid nailed jumper after jumper, and Tyrese Maxey added 26 points.
“When you’ve got an MVP candidate coming in, you’ve got to live with something,” Avdija said of Embiid’s midrange game. “… As long as he’s not getting fouled, not going to the rim, that’s all you can do.”
Therein lies the issue. Embiid had 13 points from the line and Philadelphia (13-7) took 11 free throw attempts in the fourth quarter alone.
Poole led the Wizards with one of his more efficient performances: 23 points on 10-for-16 shooting. Tyus Jones added 20 points and eight assists, and center Daniel Gafford had 18 points going up against Embiid.
“Of course you want to win the game, but comparing the time we played them last time?” Avdija said, referring to the Wizards’ 146-128 loss in November. “It’s day and night. It’s a whole different effort. You’ve got to take some positives from this game, too.”
Here’s what else to know about the Wizards’ loss:
The Wizards were so short on guards Wednesday that Unseld turned to Jared Butler, a two-way player who usually closes games in garbage time, late in the first quarter. Backups Landry Shamet (rib sprain), Johnny Davis (left calf strain), Delon Wright (left knee sprain) and Ryan Rollins (right knee strain) were unavailable, and Davis’s injury is a significant one. The second-year player will be evaluated weekly, the team announced ahead of the game.
Wright is back on court and ramping up his activity after last appearing in a game Nov. 10. Unseld said this week he has no updated timetable for the point guard.
It looked as though Coulibaly grew up in front of the crowd’s eyes for a moment in the fourth quarter, when he split defenders Paul Reed and Tobias Harris for an emphatic dunk followed by what could only be called a bit of a mean mug with 8:48 to play. He looked 19 a play later, when Avdija flubbed the floater while trying to set him up for a repeat dunk. But Coulibaly remains eminently watchable as one of the pieces of the Wizards’ rebuild that matters most.
His early stuff was good, too — the rookie stripped Embiid in the first quarter for a dunk, had another nice steal in the paint early in the second quarter and did just fine in the rare times he defended Embiid one-on-one.
He ended with 14 points on 6-for-10 shooting, adding three steals and three assists.
Avdija wasn’t just good on defense; he was also a major reason for Washington’s offensive fluidity, especially in the first half. The forward had eight points, eight rebounds and eight assists on the best passing night of the Wizards’ season.
“He was very good, composed. He didn’t force it. I think he just read what the defense gave him,” Unseld said.