Wizards get first win, the hard way

November 29, 2012

Finally! (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

For the first time, the Wizards were the team needing to hold off a spunky opponent making a late run. For the first time, they were the team that made a timely basket. For the first time, they were the team that made pressure-filled free throws in the final seconds.

And for the first time, the Wizards were victorious in the 2012-13 season.

The Wizards didn’t uncork several weeks of pent-up frustration and agitation and unleash a spanking on the Portland Trail Blazers. They built a 15-point, fourth-quarter lead, lost it, got it back and made an 84-82 win slightly more difficult than it probably should’ve been.

But how else was it supposed to go for a team that had discovered almost every which way to lose though the first month?

“We made it interesting, but we won,” Coach Randy Wittman said. “That’s the most important thing.”

And that’s all that mattered for a team that has led the league in moral victories and gut-punching defeats. They’ve lost a game in which they held a lead after time expired. They’ve lost after blowing double-digit leads. They’ve lost in overtime three times. They’ve been smoked off the court twice.

The Wizards had to deal with the embarrassment of becoming the 11th team in NBA history to lose its first 12 games and being the butt of numerous jokes. TNT’s “Inside The NBA” crew of Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith had fun referring to them as the Washington Generals, famous foil of the Harlem Globetrotters. They were also called the Lashington Lizards, because they had no Ws, only Ls.

“We are definitely an underdog. We’re definitely looked at as the losers of the league, but that’s okay,” reserve guard Martell Webster said. “We believe in each other.”

Wittman has tried to get his players to believe in their abilities and have confidence that they will eventually have a breakthrough. One player that Wittman probably doesn’t have a problem convincing is Jordan Crawford, whose “steez” is well-documented.

Crawford scored a game-high 19 points, including five during a fourth quarter that showcased what makes him infuriating and endearing. He made a long jumper that gave the Wizards a 79-64 lead with 8 minutes, 53 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, but also missed two difficult jumpers and committed a turnover when he sought to swing for a home run when a bunt would’ve been okay.

After Portland rallied to tie the game at 79, Crawford grabbed a rebound and quickly threw the ball ahead to Trevor Ariza for what could’ve been a layup – if Nicolas Batum hadn’t intercepted the ball and drawn a foul. Batum made a free throw to complete a 16-0 run by the Trail Blazers, but Crawford came right back and buried a three-pointer from the top of the key to give the Wizards the lead right back.

“I didn’t want to be a part of letting the lead slip away because we couldn’t score again,” Crawford said. “We stuck with it, grinded it out. It was great.”

When asked if he felt embarrassed about starting the season with so many losses, Crawford shrugged.

“It’s a blessing to play this game, in the NBA, travel to each city – for free. It’s a blessing to play this game,” Crawford said. “Even though it’s rough losing games, you got to know you’re in a lot better situation than a lot of people.”

Crawford made the big shot, but the Wizards didn’t have one hero against Portland. Nene returned after missing the previous game with soreness in his left foot, and while he continued to be a positive influence – he was a plus-one in roughly 19 minutes – the game didn’t take a dramatic turn with him on the floor.

“I just want to play like the other 15 players,” Nene said. “Just try to help my team. The moments I’m on the floor I’m going to do my best. To me what matters is to win and to help my team succeed.”

The game was probably the first time that Nene looked like a guy still working himself back into shape. He appeared rust-free while having such an easy transition in Atlanta and especially against Charlotte, but this still is his training camp.

Nene was serenaded with chants of “MVP! MVP!” when he went to the free throw line after rebounding a Crawford miss, and getting fouled as he made a layup. He finished with six points and six rebounds, but reserve Chris Singleton probably had the greater impact in his time on the floor.

Singleton had eight points and five minutes but he also helped keep Portland all-star forward LaMarcus Aldridge from taking over and carrying his team. The Wizards outscored the Trail Blazers by 10 points with Singleton on the floor.

The Wizards were scoring with relative ease and forcing the Trail Blazers into missed shots, but center Emeka Okafor said he never felt comfortable as the team built a double-digit second-half lead.

“I’ve been around awhile. It was so much time on the clock and whenever you’ve having a tough time winning, things happen,” Okafor said with a grin, “so I was like prepared for something. I didn’t think it would get that close.”

He also was prepared to step the foul line and make the decisive free throws with 39.1 seconds remaining. The Wizards continued to make it interesting until the final buzzer sounded, with them forcing Portland into a miss, then having Singleton call timeout after grabbing the rebound with a half-second remaining.

“Get a rebound. Call timeout. I was just doing as I was told,” Singleton said. “Can’t lose this one. That’s all I was thinking.”

But they sure tried. Instead of just rolling the ball to any teammate, Ariza had his cross-court inbounds pass stolen, giving the Trail Blazers the ball back with 0.2 seconds remaining. Portland didn’t execute a lob, with Damian Lillard’s pass nearly going through the hoop, but Ariza’s rebound allowed the Wizards and their long-suffering fans to exhale.

The Wizards couldn’t be overly concerned with the aesthetics since they haven’t experienced much success this season. The road ahead is difficult, but at least they know that they can win.

“We stayed with it,” Trevor Ariza said. “We took as close to 48 minutes as we possibly could.  They made a run. We didn’t let that rattle us. We came out with victory.”

One, the hard way.

Michael Lee is the national basketball writer for The Washington Post.
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Michael Lee · November 28, 2012