WASHINGTON - In one of the most anticipated games of the early season, local hero and future free agent Kevin Durant's return to DC was characterized less by his presence and more by what was missing on his return home.
Much of the hoopla that surrounded Kevin Durant's return to the nation's capital in January was absent from the Verizon Center this time around. While there were vendors on F Street hawking KD2DC gear, there wasn't much besides the filled arena to separate it from a typical night at the Verizon Center.
There was no scrimmage with Durant's high school team at halftime and no sponsored weather report featuring Durant photoshopped in a Wizard jersey. Gone as well were Wizard fans cheering excessively for KD, In fact, perhaps cognizant of his recent comments to the press about Washington's "disrespectful" approach in January, a small contingent booed the former MVP each time he touched the ball early in the game.
And by the beginning of the second half, Kevin Durant had disappeared too, but by that point, any sense that the Wizards could win was long gone from the building.
The night started inauspiciously enough as starting shooting guard Bradley Beal and backup center Nene were ruled out for the evening with minor injuries. Given the large gap in ability between these two and their replacements, fans could be forgiven for not giving the Wizards much of a chance at that point.
From Randy Wittman's perspective, his team might have felt the same.
"It looked like we didn't believe we could win to me" he remarked following the game, noting Beal and Nene's absences did not excuse the Wizards effort. "You lose a couple of key guys to your team, and you still got guys who can play and win a game. We're just too soft right now. I might as well stick 4 guards and a center out there."
From the very beginning, the Wizards defensive effectiveness was lacking. Like nearly all of the Wizards opponents this year, the Thunder had no trouble scoring against the Wizards porous defense. When the Wizards turned their focus to stopping Durant and Westbrook, the rest of the Thunder were willing and able to step up. Serge Ibaka in particular punished the Wizards for not respecting his range, scoring 23 on as the Wizards never got it closer than the 18 points they trailed by at halftime.
It was the third straight game in which the Wizards have given up more than 115 points and lost by double digits. "We don't defend. Guys drive by us at will." Randy Wittman lamented, pointing particularly to an isolation play at the end of the first quarter where Dion Waiters drove right through the Wizards defense for an easy layup and trip to the line. Everywhere and anywhere the Wizards needed a stop or a board, the Thunder were a step ahead of them.
The Wizards were particularly absent on the glass, where the Thunder outrebounded the Wizards by 15 in the first three quarters. As John Wall put it, "they just outrebounded us and outhustled us on every play."
Wittman also lamented the Wizards failure to rebound and called out the Wizards bigs, specifically Marcin Gortat, for their lack of presence inside.
"We don't have any toughness, we don't hit anyone, and we don't rebound. You guys that play 27 minutes and get one defensive rebound. I can get you a rebound. You give me 27 minutes on Saturday and I can get you a rebound."
Though the Wizards eventually cut into the Thunder's rebounding edge in the fourth quarter, the outcome was no longer in doubt. What crowd energy there was at the beginning had long since disappeared. If fans wanted to avoid offending Kevin Durant with over exuberance, the mission was accomplished. The Wizards certainly gave them little to be exuberant about.
The crowd finally made itself heard at one point late in the game. As Steven Adams went to the foul line after missing the first of two shots, the crowd awoke. They then gave their biggest cheer of the night when the Thunder center missed the second of 2 shots, thereby giving fans in one of the richest metropolitan areas of the country potential access to a $5 chicken sandwich.
On a night that was missing so much we had hoped for, at least we saw one thing we expected.