Wall jokingly replied, “I’m not going to be able to do it today.”
Cassell said, “Yeah, right.”
Shortly thereafter, Wall and Cassell walked out on the court and did their usual pre-game routine of taking dribble-stop, pull-up jumpers and free throws. And for the first time this season, Wall was able to turn that program into a memorable performance in a game. He scored a career-high 38 points, handed out eight assists and may have finally ditched the confused and ineffective version of himself that had been on display for most of the first 12 games.
“I just played basketball. I made jump shots and I just found my way getting to the basket and free throw line, but we came up short of a win,” Wall said after the Wizards’ 114-106 loss to Houston.
Wall has scored 30 or more points only twice in his career, after getting his previous career-high of 32 points in a double-overtime loss to the Los Angeles Clippers last season. His effort against the Rockets was more of a carryover from his second half of the Wizards’ 103-90 loss to Philadelphia on Saturday, as he broke out of a funk to have 13 points and just one turnover and finished with a near quadruple-double (19 points, nine rebounds, nine assists and eight turnovers). In his past five quarters, Wall has scored 47 points.
“Yeah, I think I’m just relaxing, playing basketball, not thinking too much,” said Wall, who was 13 of 22 from the field, and 12 of 16 from the foul line against Houston. “I think when I was going out there and just thinking the whole time I’m playing, not knowing when to shoot, just thinking too much and not going out there and playing free.”
Wall has often been overly assertive this season, forcing the issue with aggressive drives, no matter how many defenders were already clogging the paint. He was on the attack on Monday, but he made his drives with a purpose and made better decisions to set up his teammates.
Nick Young had been struggling early, but Wall found him in rhythm on the wing for a three-pointer. JaVale McGee didn’t score in the first quarter, but Wall got on the board with an alley-oop lob for a dunk. He also went the entire first half without a turnover, which was indicative of his improved focus.
“I talked to him earlier today. I told him, ‘Don’t stress it.’ He came out, played like the John Wall we know,” Young said.
He had two turnovers in the second half. The first came when he threw a pass off Rockets guard Kyle Lowry’s leg that could’ve easily been called a kick ball but wasn’t. Wall picked up a technical for arguing with the officials for missing the call. “It was a quick tech I don’t think it was well deserved, but you have to move on and keep playing basketball,” Wall said.
Wall certainly kept playing, setting up Jordan Crawford for a score with an assist a few seconds later, and scoring 24 points the rest of the game – including 18 in the fourth quarter. He got fouled by Rockets reserve Goran Dragic on a difficult running layup – screaming and pumping his fist to rile up the crowd and his teammates – as he brought the Wizards within 99-90. He then had driving layup and two free throws to cut the deficit to five.
“John Wall is kind of like a one-man fast break out there,” Rockets Coach Kevin McHale said.
Wall followed up the one-man run with an ill-timed turnover as the Wizards squandered a chance to cut the deficit to three points. He tried to force a bounce pass to Crawford that Kevin Martin batted away and ended with a Luis Scola layup on the other end. Wall came back to hit a 15-foot jumper to again bring the Wizards within five, but the Rockets scored the next seven points to put the game away.
“John played with a great amount of passion. He did a lot of things, he brought us back, gave us an opportunity,” Coach Flip Saunders said. “That’s a positive. Truly aggressive in how he played. Both ends.”
Wall had four steals and a blocked shot, and after missing his first four jumpers, he was 4 of 7 from eight feet and beyond the rest of the game. “I felt comfortable, just shooting with confidence, the main thing,” Wall said. “Sam told me if I miss one or two, just keep shooting and don’t stop. I made a couple, and it got me easy baskets to the rim.”
“I just put my head down and started playing basketball. Just go with the flow of the game,” he said. “We played hard, we fought back, we could have lost by 20. We got it down to 5, make a couple of key turnovers. Just keep fighting throughout the whole game.”
Wall wasn’t celebrating the performance afterward. Not when the Wizards had the same losing result. “It hurts,” Wall said. “We just got to prove to people on the court that it hurts us, and fight harder every minute you’re on the court.”