WASHINGTON — For all their flaws, the Washington Wizards had no business whatsoever losing to the Milwaukee Bucks — especially after Brandon Knight was scratched with a sore right hip seconds before tipoff.
Still, the Wizards waited until the third quarter to start playing serious defense against a team short on ball-handlers. They pulled away by forcing 14 second-half turnovers Saturday night in a 104-91 win that moves them closer to claiming the No. 6 seed in the Eastern Conference.
"We just played defense that third quarter," Wizards point guard John Wall said. "That’s how we’ve got to play for 48 minutes and get teams out of their rhythm."
Bradley Beal scored 26 points, and Wall added 15 points and eight assists for the Wizards, who also clinched the franchise’s first winning record since 2008 — which was also the last time they made the playoffs.
Washington isn’t exactly cruising into the postseason. Bad losses to Chicago and Charlotte were followed by a comeback win over out-of-contention Orlando on Friday. Still, that’s good enough for a one-game lead over the seventh-place Bobcats with two to play.
"Chicago came out and they let us know what a playoff game is like, and they came out with a vengeance and let us know how it’s going to be," Wall said. "Charlotte, they came out and did the same thing. They came out to leave a statement, and that’s what hurt us. But we stuck with each other. … We’ve got to try to win the last two games."
The Bobcats, who beat the Philadelphia 76ers on Saturday, hold the tiebreaker if Washington and Charlotte finish tied. Both teams are hoping to finish higher than seventh in order to avoid a first-round series against Miami or Indiana.
Khris Middleton and Ramon Sessions scored 20 points apiece to lead the Bucks, whose loss guaranteed they will finish with at least a tie for the worst record in the NBA. Milwaukee trails Philadelphia by two games with two to play at the bottom of the league.
Injuries and a suspension to Larry Sanders had already thinned Larry Drew’s bench, and on Saturday the Bucks coach was down to a rotation of eight players when Knight became unavailable.
"I was looking down at the end of the bench and I just didn’t know, I didn’t know who I had, who I didn’t have, to be perfectly honest," Drew said. "Man, I’m down to the bare minimum right now."
Rookie Giannis Antetokounmpo started in Knight’s place and had four turnovers sharing point guard duties with Sessions. The Bucks finished with 20 assists and 20 turnovers.
"The last time I got to play point guard was like three years ago. … Coach was ready to talk to us and told me, ‘Giannis, you’re starting.’ So I was shocked a little bit," Antetokounmpo said.
The Bucks also failed in their latest chance to have their first winning streak of the season. They had won Friday night after losing six in a row.
The Wizards, meanwhile, played without Nene, who recently returned from a sprained left knee. Nene felt stiff before the game and was therefore rested on a second half of a back-to-back. His fill-in, Trevor Booker, had another solid outing, scoring 11 points on 5-for-7 shooting.
Trevor Ariza, whose shot has suffered while he battled the flu for more than a week, looked a bit more refreshed as he went 5 for 7 from the field and scored 13 points for Washington. Illness has affected several people within the organization, including assistant coach Pat Sullivan, who had a fever and wasn’t on the bench Saturday night.
"We’ve got a little bug going around we need to get out of here," Wittman told reporters. "I’d like to see you guys with it, rather than our players."
NOTES: The Bucks shot exactly 50 percent (10 for 20, 8 for 16, 8 for 16) in each of the first three quarters. … The Wizards made 8 of 22 3-pointers, a modest improvement after going just 6 for 50 in their previous three games. … The Wizards signed 10-year-old Amaris Jackson to a one-day contract in partnership with the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Amaris, who is to have surgery to remove a tumor in her lungs, was introduced with the starting lineup.