Wizards make 35-point lead disappear in excruciating loss to Clippers
Could the second-largest blown lead in NBA history spell doom for Bradley Beal’s future in Washington?
Somebody’s getting fired.
The 23-25 Los Angeles Clippers visited Capital One Arena Jan. 25 to face off against the 23-24 Washington Wizards in what should have been a low-energy matchup between two sub .500 teams because of a focus on the Wizards’ Chinese Heritage Night promotion. For 36 minutes, that’s exactly what it was.
The game appeared to be over by halftime. The Wizards’ 66-36 lead at the half seemed insurmountable for the Clippers, who have struggled with the fourth-worst offense in the NBA all season long. The Clippers lacked all-stars Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, both of whom are currently recovering from long-term injuries, and Marcus Morris, who sat for personal reasons.
The Wizards looked excellent to start the game. Big man Daniel Gafford already had 10 points by the time the first-quarter buzzer rang, and Kyle Kuzma came out hot but gradually cooled down, presumably because of flashbacks to his own time in L.A.
Leading 32-23 entering the second quarter, the Wizards only ramped up their production from there and held a 30-point lead at halftime.
All of the sudden, a game that could barely be considered good became great.
If Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert and the rest of the 2020-21 Utah Jazz were watching the game, they knew exactly what was about to happen. In a throwback to Game 6 of the 2021 Western Conference Semifinals, the Clippers stormed back to steal the unlikeliest of wins from the Wizards.
It should have been the Wizards’ game. They scored the first points and led for 47 minutes and 58.1 seconds of the game’s 48-minute duration. The fourth quarter opened with a 17-point Washington lead, and though the Clippers crawled within reach, the Wizards led by a comfortable margin of 115-109 with 10.9 seconds remaining. At this point, according to ESPN, the Wizards held a 98.2 percent chance of winning.
And then it happened.
Off an inbound pass from Justise Winslow, Luke Kennard drained a 32-foot three-pointer. Impressive, but it was still a three-point game with 8.2 seconds remaining.
Tough Clippers defense all around forced Wizards Head Coach Wes Unseld Jr. to take a time-out to avoid an eight-second violation on the inbound. Then, on the second try at an inbound pass down the court, Terance Mann suffocated Kuzma, forcing a five-second violation.
Mann inbounded the ball to Winslow, who dribbled up the court and passed to the blazing-hot Kennard. Winslow set a screen, forcing Bradley Beal to switch onto Kennard, who took three dribbles and pulled up at the three-point line. Kennard got the shot off with 2.4 seconds on the clock.
As the ball slowly arced toward the basket, the referee blew his whistle. Beal fouled Kennard, meaning Kennard had to hit three free throws to tie the game. That is, unless his shot went in, meaning a single made free throw would all but win it for the underdog Clippers.
The whole Clippers bench was on their feet except for Eric Bledsoe, who nervously squatted on the bench, and Nicolas Batum, who sat with both of his hands on top of his head.
As Kennard’s shot continued to arc downward, Bledsoe and Batum both jumped up, and the bench descended upon the court. They knew what was happening.
The tension on the court finally broke as the shot flew through the hoop after catching the slightest bit of the rim. The relatively empty Capital One Arena — with just over 13 thousand of its 20 thousand seats filled — erupted.
In an almost unreal finish, Kennard — who is shooting 88 percent from the line this season — drained the free-throw with ease and Kuzma whiffed an inbound pass for the third time in ten seconds to seal the Clippers’ miraculous victory.
As the Wizards walked off the court stunned and the fans filtered out of the arena, nobody was more upset than the Wizards brass. A career Wizard and arguably the best player to ever put on the team’s eye-popping red white and blue jersey, Beal has recently begun expressing his displeasure with the organization, and rumors about a potential trade or his impending 2023 free agency abound. With Washington hoping to keep their homegrown superstar, blowing a 35-point lead to a below-.500 team missing their three best players certainly does not help the team’s case.
Will this game, the second-largest comeback in NBA history, be forgotten beyond the leaderboard of the league’s biggest blunders?
Or will it be remembered as a symbolic moment in Bradley Beal’s career? Should Beal find himself playing for a new team by next summer, to what degree can his decision be traced back to this embarrassing fumbling of a near-40-point lead? Time will tell.