Reporting David Elfin
Last April 14, the Wizards fell to a woeful 14-46 with a 98-89 home loss to Cleveland. That was the last game that Washington lost with John Wall in uniform. Last night’s 120-91 destruction of Orlando at Verizon Center was the Wizards’ second straight victory since Wall returned from a season-long injury to his left knee.
All of us who were mocking out the Wizards and their never-ending rebuilding project are feeling a little sheepish this morning for questioning whether having Wall back on the court would really change anything for a franchise that was a ghastly 38-97 with him in the lineup the previous two seasons.
Add the six-game spurt with which they finished last year and the Wizards are 8-0 over the last nine months with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2010 draft on the court.
“I’m not going to say I’m that important, I just feel like I’m a big key missing to the piece,” said Wall, who has scored 26 points and dished out 10 assists (with just five turnovers) off the bench in the triumphs over the Magic and Atlanta. “We play hard and we’ve been in a lot of games. We just didn’t have anybody to close four quarters out or get us easy points. My job is to come in and use my ability … getting into the lane, make easy shots, get fast breaks, and keep up high intensity.”
Last Monday’s upset of defending Western Conference champion Oklahoma City in the final game before Wall’s return was stunning except that the Wizards also beat the Thunder here last January. However, the victories over the solid Hawks and the not-so solid Magic have not been flukes, as point guard A.J. Price said. Washington has actually played like a legitimate NBA team.
“That was a beautiful thing,” coach Randy Wittman said last night after his Wizards shot .561 from the field against Orlando, obliterating their previous best of .481 while setting season-highs with 120 points and 32 assists. “The ball is moving, everybody’s touching it, whether you get the shot or not, you’re involved.”
Movement and distribution is what makes the speedy Wall special. Sometimes it’s hard to remember that he’s still just 22 and should be playing his senior season at Kentucky instead of ranking as the senior Wizard with three years in Washington.
For now, Wall is, “just [letting] the game come to me, just finding my teammates. I don’t have to over-penetrate, overdo … because I have a lot of shooters out there, big men that can pick and pop.”
It wasn’t a coincidence that center Emeka Okafor (19 points, 11 rebounds) and forward Jan Vesely (10, seven) reached season-highs against Orlando.
While Price, who was signed in July to be Wall’s backup, is starting for now, Wittman knows that his long-missing focal point has made a marked difference in just 41 minutes so far.
“He gives us that extra gear,” Wittman said. “You see bigs running harder because they know if they get to the rim, they’re going to receive a pass. … If you get good guard play, you have a chance to win games. John coming back helps that obviously.”
Last night’s performance was what general manager Ernie Grunfeld envisioned last summer when he traded with New Orleans for Okafor and forward Trevor Ariza and drafted shooting guard Bradley Beal third overall. That trio plus Wall and big man Nene, acquired from Denver 10 months ago today, were supposed to re-invigorate a franchise that posted a horrific .282 winning percentage over the past four seasons.
However, Wall was sidelined for the first 33 games while Ariza (17), Nene (13), Price (15) and power forward Trevor Booker (25) have also missed extensive time. All except Booker are back now so it’s only fair to give the team a while to jell before we judge it.
“It gives us a big confidence boost going to the West Coast,” Beal said before the Wizards headed out on an eight-day, five-game road swing that starts tomorrow in Sacramento.
I’m not saying that the Wizards will make the playoffs for just the sixth time in 25 years or somehow win just their second postseason series during that quarter century. With just 47 games left, they still trail Milwaukee by a whopping 11.5 games for the Eastern Conference’s final postseason berth. At an NBA-worst 7-28, Washington will have to go 34-13 just to finish .500, which isn’t normally a playoff-qualifying mark.
But last night the Wizards were something they have rarely been during the Obama Administration: fun to watch. That’s a start for a franchise that’s competing for Washington’s attention with the division champion Redskins and Nationals along with the Capitals, who start their lockout-shortened season on Saturday.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since last March. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin