But the Washington Wizards center spun and recovered, picking a spot to set his feet. Caught off-guard, Nets guard Caris LeVert plowed into Bryant and was whistled for an offensive foul. Bryant, his body splayed on the court, shouted again.
“I knew [LeVert] really wasn’t paying attention and wanted to get the shot off quick,” Bryant said. “I took the charge the best that I can because I knew he was going to keep coming. I got right in front of him and took it.”
The bang-bang sequence encapsulated a strong night for Bryant and an improved second showing for the Wizards, who pushed the Nets hard Sunday before falling, 118-110, at HP Field House on the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex.
Washington (24-42) opened play at the NBA’s Disney World bubble with a 125-112 loss to the Phoenix Suns, a fast and loose showing that left Coach Scott Brooks seeking better defensive communication and discipline. Against the shorthanded Nets (31-35), who were without Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Spencer Dinwiddie and DeAndre Jordan because of injuries and positive tests for the novel coronavirus, the Wizards looked engaged and provided stiffer resistance. Brooklyn never found much breathing room until the closing minutes when it took control of a hard-fought game between two playoff hopefuls.
Bryant deserved most of the credit, finishing with a season-high 30 points and 13 rebounds while doing a little bit of everything along the way. His seven early points and multiple defensive stops keyed an 11-2 Wizards lead before the first timeout, and his third-quarter scoring flurry kept things close as Rui Hachimura and Washington’s starting guards struggled to get going. He threaded a nice backdoor pass to Troy Brown Jr. from the high post in the fourth quarter, and he tracked Brooklyn’s big men out to the three-point line all night.
“I try to bring this energy to the team day in and day out,” Bryant said. “It was a very important game for us, so I wanted to make sure that my teammates know that I’m out there with them, that I’m going to leave it all out there no matter what.”
High-effort play such as Bryant’s stands out in this bubble environment. HP Field House is the size of a high school gym, and most of the 50 or seats set up for the early 1 p.m. tip were empty. With no fans in the stands, teams such as the Wizards are responsible for manufacturing their own energy, which can lead to funny moments.
As Washington took the court for warmups, fewer than a dozen people were in attendance. One of those observers clapped enthusiastically, prompting Ian Mahinmi to smile and point at her as he jogged toward the layup line. After Bryant hit two quick baskets to force Brooklyn to take a timeout at the start of the third quarter, he aggressively flexed his biceps as if there were fans in the baseline seats looking on. His only audience was the camera mounted to the nearby basket stanchion. That same stanchion, incidentally, received a full-force head butt from Bryant in the fourth quarter after he earned a trip to the foul line.
“[Bryant] brought the juice,” Brooks said. “He gave us some offense. He committed on both ends. We need him to do that consistently. That’s how he has to play. I thought he was outstanding.”
There was a stability to Washington’s play against Brooklyn, if not always grace and spot-on execution. The Wizards effectively toggled into zone defense for stretches of the second quarter, goading the Nets into launching three-pointers. Yet Jerome Robinson carelessly fouled LeVert on a three-point attempt with less than three minutes to play that helped Brooklyn ice the win. Bryant, the man of the night, earned a brief rebuke from Brooks for forcing a contested turnaround jumper as Washington lost its offensive momentum late.
Brown chipped in 22 points, and three other Wizards finished in double figures. LeVert finished with a game-high 34 points for Brooklyn, and Joe Harris added 27 points in the win.
The Wizards, who are without John Wall, Bradley Beal and Davis Bertans and entered the NBA’s restart with the worst record of the 22 teams, saw their path to the playoffs get significantly more difficult with the loss. Sunday’s defeat locked them into ninth place in the Eastern Conference and dropped them seven games behind the Nets and Orlando Magic. Washington must narrow the gap to four games to trigger a play-in round, but it will be tough with games against four East powers — the Indiana Pacers, Philadelphia 76ers, Milwaukee Bucks and Boston Celtics — remaining on the schedule.
“We played about as hard as we can play,” Brooks said. “The odds are against us, but we’ve got to keep fighting. We come in here, and we don’t want moral victories. We want to keep fighting. We’ve got some tough games coming up. These next six games are against some of the best teams in basketball.”