Reporting David Elfin
When point guard John Wall blocked perennial All-Star forward Carmelo Anthony’s layup try and raced the length of the floor to give the Wizards a 16-5 lead over the Knicks last night, Verizon Center was as loud as it had been since last spring’s Stanley Cup playoffs.
New York then showed why it’s one of the NBA’s top teams by scoring the next 10 points. Just 4:09 after Wall’s tremendous play, the Knicks had the lead. One had to wonder when, not if, the visitors would assert full control of the game and put Washington back in its customary lowly place. After all, the Knicks had blasted the Wizards 108-87 in their previous meeting on Nov. 30.
But those were the Wall-less Wizards. The No. 1 overall pick in the 2010 draft was nursing a right knee injury and his team was a mess without him, sinking to 4-28 after getting drilled by defending champion Miami on Jan. 6.
The lithe Wall is no “Human Wall,” the nickname bestowed on burly Hall of Fame center Wes Unseld, the heartbeat of Washington’s great teams of the 1970s. Wall is a cat-quick catalyst. Last night, he kept driving and dishing, driving and dishing en route to 21 points and nine assists.
“Wall gives them an up-tempo pace,” Anthony said. “He pushes the ball in transition. He’s a one-man break. He gets it and goes.”
After losing that early 11-point advantage, Wall and the Wizards hung in there. Forwards Martell Webster (two) and Trevor Ariza (one) nailed 3-pointers and Wall added a basket to regain the lead just 41 seconds into the second quarter as the hosts served notice that they weren’t going away.
“We just didn’t put our heads down, and this is a team that it is easy to do that against, with as many three’s as they take and as hard as it is to cover Carmelo,” said Wizards coach Randy Wittman. “Our guys stayed with it the whole time. That’s what quality NBA teams [do].”
Washington led 51-48 at halftime and pushed the margin to seven before New York rallied to lead 73-70 heading after three quarters. However, Ariza, who lost his starting job to Webster last month, opened the fourth quarter by taking a pass from Wall and sinking a three-pointer while being fouled by Anthony. Ariza’s free throw took the lead back.
Over the next 3:22, Wall scored four points, Ariza hit another three-pointer and little-used forward Chris Singleton scored two baskets and added yet another bomb as the Wizards broke on top 88-80. The Knicks scored the next four points but would never be so close again as Washington won 106-96, ending a 10-game losing streak against New York that stretched back more than three years.
In winning for the seventh time in its last eight home games, Washington shot 53.2 percent from the field, 55 percent from beyond the arc. Six, count ‘em, six Wizards scored in double figures with Wall, Ariza (a season-high 20) and Webster (19) leading the way. It was Webster’s second straight game with five three-pointers and Ariza’s second straight with three.
The long-range shooting was spectacular but is becoming the rule for Washington whose .398 percentage from beyond the arc over its last 15 games is the best in the Eastern Conference.
What’s also becoming commonplace for Wittman’s team is beating the NBA’s best. Without Wall, Washington was 3-23 against the rest of the league but 2-5 against division leaders. Since his return, the Wizards are 3-2 against division leaders, 5-5 against everyone else.
“We definitely step up to the challenge,” explained center Emeka Okafor. “As of late we beat ourselves more than the other team beats us, so if we stick to what we do we usually come out on top.”
However you slice it, Washington is just a different team with Wall, even with rookie shooting guard Bradley Beal missing the past five games with an aching right wrist. All four games in which the Wizards have had four players in double figures have come since Wall returned on Jan. 12.
“We’re starting to gel,” said Okafor, who came within three rebounds of joining fellow big man Nene with a double-double. “With a healthy team, we can play. We have enough games so everyone knows everyone’s tendencies. When we get in a flow like that we can just feel the energy. All of us are clicking.”
The Wizards started clicking way too late into the season to have any hope of making the playoffs. They would have to go 28-6 the rest of the way just to finish .500. But if they continue their recent 8-7 pace, they’ll wind up 31-51. That would not only be their best record in five years but would put them ahead of five of their Eastern Conference rivals and behind only one, Philadelphia, that’s likely to miss out on postseason.
A victory over visiting Brooklyn tomorrow would improve Washington to 9-7 with Wall. That’s a .563 winning percentage, a level this franchise hasn’t reached in a full season since Unseld captained the then-defending champion Bullets back to the NBA finals in 1979. So while the Wizards still have the NBA’s second-worst record, they have made serious progress during the past month.
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.