It would be that kind of night for the Washington Wizards. From the moment the Wizards took the floor in the 128-111 loss to the Grizzlies, they were pushed around, dunked on and accidentally assaulted by undulating props. More threatening than a cheerleader wielding a flag, Memphis had a wave of bigs to hurt the Wizards (7-17) in many ways.
“They’ve got a big team,” Coach Scott Brooks said. “But just because you don’t have all your guys doesn’t mean you can’t go out there and throw your bodies and win the hustle game. I thought they won the hustle game.”
The Grizzlies scored 70 points in the paint and converted eight dunks, led by rookie forward Brandon Clarke, who thrived on high-percentage shots for 25 points. While Bradley Beal scored a game-high 29 points to go with 10 rebounds, he also committed six of his team’s 18 turnovers. Those mistakes gift-wrapped easy fast breaks for Memphis (22 points) and disadvantaged the defense.
“We were turning the ball over. I’m definitely cognizant of that,” Beal said. “I’m guilty of it. I had a lot of turnovers tonight. . . . So in some aspect, I put that on my shoulders.”
With their top two centers on the mend — and on the sideline — the Wizards plugged Mahinmi into the starting lineup for the first time since Oct. 30, 2018. Also, two rookies, Rui Hachimura and Admiral Schofield, took turns playing the center position in spot duty. Still, Washington lacked size in the middle, and the circumstances forced the team to play smaller than it would have wanted against the Grizzlies’ variety of bigs.
When the 7-foot, 265-pound Jonas Valanciunas became too much of a load for traditional defense, forward Davis Bertans turned to theatrics.
Near the end of the first quarter, the 6-10 Bertans was the tallest Wizard on the court, and, therefore, he accepted the Valanciunas responsibility. With eight seconds remaining in the quarter, instead of spending another possession taking body blows, Bertans exaggeratedly grabbed his ribs after taking contact from Valanciunas. When fans watched a replay of the slight contact that resulted in an offensive foul, groans filled FedEx Forum. One Grizzlies fan behind the scorers’ table heckled Bertans: “Are you a basketball player or an actor?”
Behind Valanciunas, Memphis deployed a more agile big in Clarke. The Wizards could have used more Oscar-worthy defense against the Grizzlies’ rookie. No amount of flopping could stop Clarke at the rim. Whether Clarke was punishing Troy Brown Jr. for overplaying the passing lane or getting behind the defense to catch a no-look lob pass from teammate Kyle Anderson, Clarke had his way in completing all four of his close-range attempts in the second quarter.
“If he gets behind you, you can’t outjump him. You can’t catch up to him. And they throw it up to the rim,” Brooks said. “Good player. Obviously, he’s going to continue to improve with his talent base, but we gave him a lot of easy, easy, easy looks . . . in that first half.”
In the waning seconds of the quarter, Mahinmi was back on the court to protect the rim. But it didn’t matter to Clarke. While running in transition, Clarke received a pass from beyond the top of the arc and, with no resistance, moved down the lane and hammered a dunk over Mahinmi.
Later, as the game got away from the Wizards in the fourth quarter, Clarke and Bertans met. The play, in which Clarke cleared room to work inside, ended with Bertans on the ground, holding his throat. Though angry Grizzlies fans accused Bertans of another performance, he needed the attention of team trainers and left the game.
While matching up against bigger, stronger players, Bertans, the Wizards’ sharpshooter, was a nonfactor on the other end with just nine points on 2-for-9 shooting. Bertans missed five of his six attempts from deep.
“He’s guarding bigger guys than we would like and he would like, but that’s the way it is right now. We’ve got Blake [Griffin] and [Andre] Drummond coming up in a few nights, so it’s going to be the same situation,” Brooks said about the team’s upcoming tussle with the Detroit Pistons. “He’s bound to have an off shooting night, whether it’s guarding bigger guys, I don’t know.”
Clarke stayed in, continuing the inside work he began in the first half. During that stretch, the Grizzlies dropped 38 points in the paint while Clarke, playing off the bench, led all scorers with 19. Their domination of the interior opened a 69-54 advantage at intermission.
The Grizzlies expanded their range, as well as their lead, in the third quarter. This time, it was another role player who hurt the Wizards. Backup forward Solomon Hill worked exclusively from beyond the three-point arc, making all four of his attempts, the last coming with 45 seconds remaining in the quarter and growing the lead to 102-81 for Memphis. The defensive collapse continued into the fourth as the Grizzlies opened a 24-point lead.
“We can’t worry about our offense,” Beal said. “We’re always going to score over 100 points per game. That’s never the problem. It’s just a matter of us getting stops, accepting the challenge individually and as a team collectively.”