Has it really been that long? Three years. It really took the Wizards three years to win three games in row? Seems like it would be hard to do that on purpose, but the lengthy stretch between accomplishing that streak -- 245 games! -- says a lot about how miserable the situation has been for this franchise as if prepares for yet another lottery appearance.
When the Wizards swept through the Miami Heat, Chicago Bulls and eventual champion Boston Celtics -- wouldn’t that be an incredible run this season? -- from April 4-9, 2008, then-coach Eddie Jordan was focused on re-incorporating Gilbert Arenas as he worked his way back from left knee surgery and riding all-stars Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler on the way to another playoff series against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
But after defeating the Cavaliers, Charlotte Bobcats and Detroit Pistons, Coach Flip Saunders is focused on making sure his team doesn’t get complacent and start preparing for island vacations before the season is complete. The Wizards (21-56) are doing serious damage to their lottery chances, moving into a tie with the Toronto Raptors for the league’s third-worst record, but don’t seem to care.
“We’ve told our guys these last two week weeks are important to keep our energy level, keep on improving, put them in situations like tonight where they can learn what to do,” Saunders said after the Wizards escaped with a 107-105 win at Verizon Center. “There’s been a lot of veteran players that have played here the last three years, there’s been a lot of different people, and so for these guys to go and play and take care of things is a positive.”
It’s hard to pinpoint the exact turning point, but ever since the Wizards lost in double-overtime against the Los Angeles Clippers, they have been playing a more spirited brand of basketball. They also seem to be unaware that this is the time to start packing it in, and are carrying a different attitude when they step on the court.
“We got a swagger now,” Jordan Crawford said. “I wanted to bring a certain swagger to the team, even though they already had a tough player and I wanted to bring my toughness, too. Mo [Evans] brought his and everybody is just competing.”
The Wizards also have Andray Blatche playing with more energy than he has all season, as he recorded his third consecutive game with at least 25 points and 10 rebounds. Blatche also had a career-high six steals and spent time defending Tracy McGrady in the final minutes. Okay, it was an old McGrady and the old McGrady, but Saunders said, “he actually did the best job of anybody we had guarding McGrady down the stretch.”
Blatche was the only player on the court the last time the Wizards won three straight, but he is a much different player since then, last season, or even at the start of this season. “He’s a totally different player, the player he was before I got drafted,” said Wall, noting how Blatche returned from his right shoulder injury in much better shape. Saunders said Blatche is also displaying more maturity on the court. “He’s had really good energy. I think he’s been much more patient, and he hasn’t got frustrated. I think last year he got off to a great start, he had 9, 10, 11 points early. We went through a tough time, through a stretch there when we looked like we were having problems throwing the ball all over the place, and last year he might’ve gotten a little bit frustrated because he wasn’t getting the ball. He kept doing the things that he was supposed to do defensively, tried to rebound, and I think he knew we’d come back to him. He made some big plays down the stretch and made big free throws.”
JaVale McGee didn’t have big numbers (8 points, 8 rebounds and 3 blocks), but made one of the best decisions of the game, when he rebounded a Tayshaun Prince miss and found Wall streaking up the floor for a layup that put the Wizards ahead, 104-102, with 14.8 seconds remaining.
“We’ve been trying to tell him to do that. He has some snatch rebounds and he comes down sometimes and cradles it, and so we were looking for him to do that,” Saunders said. “It was an unbelievable find, though. We had two guys open, John and Jordan, or Mo. He found the right guy because he’s the fastest guy; no one’s going to catch him once John gets it. That was a great find, there’s no question.”
The Wizards continue to reap huge dividends from the Kirk Hinrich deal, with Evans and Crawford combining for 37 points and bringing a different mindset from Atlanta. They rarely, if ever, played for the Hawks but have been invaluable.
“I wasn’t aware of the streak, but I was aware that wins haven’t been coming easily,” Evans said after scoring at least 20 points for the third time season, all in the past two weeks. “So, I just wanted come out and get as many wins as we can. That’s what Jordan and I said when we came here. To our liking, I’m very happy with how it’s gone thus far, as far as the effort, from everybody in this locker room. I hope it continues these last five games.”
They probably will with Wall still understanding the importance of every game, a determination that he showed in the fourth quarter, when he was responsible for 11 of the Wizards’ final 13 points. He had three layups, three free throws and an assist to McGee, flipping the “Go” switch in his brain when the game got tight.
“When I see things are getting out of hand or we’re struggling a little bit, I try to get myself going and get us back in the game, not just by scoring, but getting us easy baskets,” Wall said. “I still have to leave my trademark on the league. As a rookie, I proved myself a little bit, but I still have a lot to do. I just want to be a person that’s going to go out there and play every minute I’m on the court. Just wanted to hustle.”
Wall was a junior in high school the last the Wizards won three in a row. It took them 12 tries to finally get it done, but Wall wants to make sure that it doesn’t take that long to do it again. “We just wanted to tell the fans and people that’s watching, that we’re getting better. We’re adding pieces and understanding what our team is about. Everybody is doing their role now and we’re finding out ways to win games.”