The Washington Wizards (14-35) shut down the Brooklyn Nets (29-21) Friday night at the Verizon Center in an 89-74 win that showcased what the team has believed in – and many have doubted – since the beginning of the season.
They may be far from playoff contention, but the Wizards demonstrated for all what good health and great speed can produce against a team that has more than doubled Washington’s win column this season.
Every player that stepped onto the court donning Washington’s red, white and blue made a positive contribution to the effort. In fact, only two players for Washington had a plus/minus in the negative range – both with -1. The first was Emeka Okafor, who still managed to grab eight boards and six points for Washington, and the second was none other than Jan Vesely, who saw less than a minute of playing action.
Nene led the Wizards’ charge with 20 points, 11 rebounds and two blocks. Martell Webster tacked on another 16, John Wall a respectable 15 and Trevor Ariza an additional nine points.
More importantly, the Wizards tormented the Nets on defense. They intervened on key opportunities, stole the ball 11 times and forced critical turnovers.
“We are just playing hard,” said Ariza after the game. “We know that it is going to take a team effort to win every night, so that’s what we got to do defensively and offensively. We know that we are up there in the defensive categories, and we want to stay there. Our best bet is to lock down.”
Okafor put the Wizards on board first after navigating around Reggie Evans to find the net. Wall grabbed the Wizards’ first steal against Gerald Wallace, and he capitalized on the play to put Washington up 4-0.
Even when the Wizards failed to connect, they made sure the Nets would not cash in.
With 7:56 left in the first quarter, Brook Lopez posted a huge block on Okafor, but Webster returned the favor against Wallace on the very next play. Wall came away with the ball and when all was said and done, he found the net in time to put the Wizards back on top, 9-8.
As a unit, the Wizards dominated on defense, however, awkward matchups surfaced, nonetheless. Okafor looked uncomfortable in his own shoes throughout the greater part of the first quarter. He also turned the ball over with just over 1:30 remaining in the first, and Andray Blatche – of all people – came up with the steal. Kris Humphries slammed one into the net off the play to tie the game at 18 points apiece.
Blatche made a layup to put the Nets on top with fewer than 30 seconds in the quarter, but Bradley Beal made it known to all he was back on the court after missing five games with a sore right wrist. With just seconds to go until the second quarter, Beal sank a three and the Wizards entered the second with a narrow 21-20 lead.
Washington pulled further in front at the start of the second half, aided by two free throws from Kevin Seraphin. At the end of the night, the Wizards only drew 11 foul shots, but they sank 10 of them and set a new team record this season for the highest free throw percentage with more than 10 shots attempted.
To reassure that the Wizards were off to a good run, A.J. Price made a dish to Serpahin, who came up with a monstrous slam to make it 27-20 Wizards.
By the time the Nets scored their first field goal in the quarter, there were only three and a half minutes remaining and the Wizards had already enjoyed a 13-1 run.
Webster tallied another seven points in the remainder of the half and Nene’s jumper with 11 seconds remaining put Washington up by 20 with a 51-31 lead.
“We came out with the defensive mentality that we wanted to shut them down,” Beal said. “Our bigs did a great job of stopping their bigs. I think we did a great job of containing Joe Johnson as best we could, and limiting them to the amount of shots that they made. We were able to get them to take one shot and get out.”
If Wizards fans ever had an opportunity to fear a repeat of the Washington’s double overtime loss to the Nets on Jan. 4, it likely happened in the third quarter when the bench took over.
Then – and really, only then – the Wizards looked sloppy. Suddenly, they were unbalanced on defense and they misread plays against a Nets team that ran helter-skelter all night long.
Oddly enough, one of the most valuable players for the Wizards at the start of the second half was Andray Blatche. Sure, every time Wizards fans booed him with all their might, it seemed to put an extra jump in the Wizards’ steps – if only for a few moments. More importantly, however, Blatche missed all four of his free throws at a time when the Nets could have taken control of the game.
Instead of chipping away at the Wizards’ 62-46 lead, Blatche only provided Wizards fans with greater incentive to get on their feet. At the end of three, Washington held onto a 65-53 lead.
Blatche’s poor misfortune continued as Nene blocked a jump shot and Chris Singleton prevented a layup, allowing the Wizards to cruise ahead with a 67-55 lead and less than 10 minutes left to play.
Perhaps the most tell-tale play of the game, however, happened with just under 7:30 remaining. Nene blocked a 16-foot jumper by Deron Williams and Wall scooped up the rebound to run it across the court. Off the drive, he pulled off a behind-the-back pass to Ariza who slammed it in to make it 74-58.
Ariza was on fire in the final minutes of the game. He followed up the dunk with a three-pointer and another delivery off a dish by Wall. When all was said and done, the Wizards coasted to an 89-74 victory, marking their eighth win in nine games at the Verizon Center.
The win also represented the eighth consecutive game in which Washington has held opponents to fewer than 100 points.
“I said the other day if this team was healthy in the beginning, I think we would be in the top four of the East,” Singleton said. “I really do feel confident in this team and over the last week it shows that if we continue to play together, anything can happen.”
“I feel like we could be in a playoff spot right now,” Wall added later. “You don’t give up on a season this early.”
In order to continue to register on other teams’ radars, the Wizards will have to try their luck again on the road Monday night against the Bucks at 8:00 p.m. ET.