In a glimpse of what might have been, Wizards take a tumble vs. Knicks

It took just 90 seconds Saturday night for the New York Knicks to show who they are and, more specifically, who the Washington Wizards are not. It was right there as Isaiah Hartenstein collected a poor pass by the Wizards’ Tyus Jones and looked down at his palms; by the time his eyes went up, Jalen Brunson had zipped down the court ahead of the nearest Washington defender for an easy outlet and basket.

The New York-leaning sellout crowd of 20,333 roared, celebrating the first — but far from the final — blow as every Knicks starter scored or assisted in the opening two minutes. Washington’s early eight-point deficit ballooned to 26 in the first half, and by game’s end, the rudderless Wizards were left with a 121-105 loss at Capital One Arena.

In their fourth straight defeat, the Wizards again were cannon fodder for a playoff hopeful, falling to 1-19 against teams over .500. Only this time, they weren’t bludgeoned by one of the NBA’s superstars — those were absent from both rosters Saturday — but by a collection of scrappy, once-underappreciated players they could have had.

“Even the best teams, not every night the ball is going to go in, and they excel in the other things and making the game close,” said the Wizards’ Deni Avdija, who had 23 points, 10 rebounds and six assists. “When the ball doesn’t go in, you’ve got to play better defense or be more aggressive and maybe crash the boards a little bit more — things that can help us get in a better flow.”

Brunson (33 points) was available when Washington took Troy Brown Jr. 15th in the 2018 draft. (Brown now resides in Minnesota, averaging 4.7 points for the Timberwolves.) Hartenstein, whose eight points and 19 rebounds provided the type of rim protection that Washington sorely missed Saturday, cost the Knicks just $16 million over two years in 2022 free agency.

Josh Hart (nine points, four rebounds), who went to school in the Wizards’ backyard at Sidwell Friends, was available for scraps early in his career; his hometown team never bit. Julius Randle, who led all scorers with 39 points, was considered expendable until he got to New York. At the 2017 draft, Washington had traded away the 22nd pick. At No. 23, the Toronto Raptors scooped up two-way stalwart OG Anunoby (nine points, five rebounds), whom the Knicks traded for in late December.

It remains to be seen whether Washington (6-29), under its new brain trust steered by Monumental Basketball President Michael Winger, can hit on the same margins New York (21-15) did. But the Knicks’ success in constructing their roster and culture provided a look at what the Wizards could one day hope to become — especially with one controllable facet.

“The defensive identity,” Wizards Coach Wes Unseld Jr. said of the Knicks’ central strength. “I think their roster composition plays to that strength in its totality. … They do everything with a certain level of aggression. And if you’re not ready to meet and exceed that, you’re going to be on your heels most of the night.”

Looking for a bright spot on the Wizards? Watch Tyus Jones.

Washington struggled again in that department, allowing New York to shoot 49.4 percent. Unseld said his focus remains on developing strong defense in the team’s young core.

“We try to do what they do [defensively],” said Kyle Kuzma, who led the Wizards with 27 points. “They just got the personnel to do it.”

The Knicks’ barrage continued for most of the first half as the Wizards struggled with their opponents’ physicality. Randle had 13 points in the first quarter and 21 by halftime. Washington’s woes in the half were compounded by 14 turnovers and 3-for-15 shooting from outside. New York’s offense was active off the ball and on the glass, punctuated when Miles McBride flew toward the hoop for a putback dunk in the final moments of the opening quarter for a 15-point lead.

Though Jones connected on a floater toward the end of the first half, providing a rare highlight for an otherwise static offense, it only cut the Wizards’ deficit to 20.

“When you’re down 20, it’s never ideal. It’s taxing to claw your way back into a game,” said Unseld, who noted that both teams were on the second game of a back-to-back. “To show a little more resilience was positive, but we’ve got to make sure we’re ready to go at the start of the game.”

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Washington found life in the third quarter, generating better defensive results and forcing turnovers after switching to a zone, eventually trimming New York’s lead to five on Kuzma’s third three-pointer of the period. The shot capped a 26-11 run and forced a New York timeout.

But the Wizards missed their next five outside shots to close the quarter, including an air ball by Avdija, which allowed New York to go on a 17-6 run and pull away for good. With five minutes left, following a Brunson three and a foul drawn by Randle, visiting fans showered the arena with a “Let’s go, Knicks!” chant.

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