John Wall, left, (24 points) and Bradley Beal (game-high 25 points) can finally smile after holding off the Knicks at Madision Square Garden to move back into a tie with Toronto for the No. 3 seed in the East with three games to go. (Brad Penner/USA Today Sports)
NEW YORK — The Washington Wizards returned home after a taxing 2-3 West Coast swing claiming they just needed a little time to reacclimate to the Eastern time zone and regroup from their toughest stretch of the season. But after two unimpressive wins — the second coming Thursday night, a narrow 106-103 escape against the lowly New York Knicks — one thing has become clear:
The Wizards are running out of time.
The victory improved Washington to 48-31 and moved it back into a tie with Toronto for the No. 3 seed in the East with three games left in the regular season (although the Raptors own the tiebreaker). But the brand of basketball on display late in the game at Madison Square Garden is not what the Wizards will need for a deep postseason run. They allowed another double-digit lead to evaporate in the second half and could breathe easy only after Carmelo Anthony’s potential game-tying three-pointer in the closing seconds bounced off the rim.
“Playing hard, that’s all it was,” Bradley Beal said of New York’s comeback. “We were up 15 like twice and we just let them back in the game. That’s not being locked in and just not being tougher, you know. They were just playing harder than us and they wanted the win. They wanted to come back and do whatever it took to get the win. We did a good job of sustaining in the end, but we’ve got to do a way better job of containing them and keeping them under wraps.”
The Wizards had a 12-point edge early in the fourth quarter when the Knicks started chipping away and Washington’s defense faded. Anthony tied the game at 101 with one minute to play. Beal answered with a three-pointer that Coach Scott Brooks singled out later.
“We made big plays at the end,” Brooks said. “We had trouble stopping a few of their players, but we made big plays. We have to take care of the game — we were up 15 a couple of times and we relaxed and let them back in the game.”
“Give that team a lot of credit,” guard John Wall said, “they fought hard and never quit.”
If Washington found a challenge in the Knicks (30-49), long eliminated from playoff contention and playing without starters Kristaps Porzingis, Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah, its path does not get easier. The Wizards return to Verizon Center on Saturday for their final home game of the regular season to face a Miami team fighting for the final playoff spot in the East.
New York gave Washington all it could handle despite falling into a 15-point deficit in the third quarter.
When Wall made a three-pointer with just over five minutes to play, Washington led by nine and Wall flashed a little swagger, letting his shooting hand hang in the air for an extra second or two. By then, Beal and Wall were in the midst of strong games (Beal finished with a game-high 25 points, and Wall had 24), and things were running smoothly for the Wizards.
But the few missing pieces — Washington’s second-unit defense, a glaring deficit in offensive rebounds, and later on, the Wizards’ lack of urgency — helped fuel the Knicks’ comeback. It was a precipitous drop after Washington had taken care to avoid another slow start. Before tip-off, Brooks joked in his pregame speech that he might just ask his players to pretend it was the third quarter. But make-believe wasn’t necessary early on, as the Wizards shot 53.8 percent from the field, including 44.4 percent from the three-point line, before intermission. They held New York to 38.8 percent shooting from the field with Jason Smith filling in for starting forward Markieff Morris, who was out with a sore right ankle.
Anthony led six New York players in double figures with 23 points. Justin Holiday added 16, and the Knicks kept the game close until time ran out.
But with an eye toward the playoffs and the coveted 50-win plateau, there were no disappointed players in Washington’s locker room.
“Hey, a win is a win,” Beal said. “We love it because our goal is to get 50 — we have two more, so we’ll definitely take it. We’re still not satisfied with the way we played. We know we could play a lot better, especially defensively, and offensively, we could have moved the ball a little better, too. It’s a lot of things we’re going to take from it, good and bad, but a win is a win. We’ll take it.”
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