Early in the third quarter of the Wizards’ 114-101 win over Minnesota, Bradley Beal watched Timberwolves point guard Luke Ridnour steal a pass from Nene and start cruising up the court, without a concern, ready to convert an easy layup. Beal chased him down, timed his jump then slapped the ball off the glass before stumbling into a row of cameramen.
After dusting himself off, Beal ran back up the court, keeping an eye on Nene as he dribbled around, looking for somewhere to go. Nene looked to his left and found Beal, who coolly buried the jumper over Ridnour.
The hustle and refusal to give in that Beal displayed during that sequence represents the approach the Wizards have taken during a season that is all but over mathematically.
“Our focus to these guys was to hang in there, it’s going to turn,” Coach Randy Wittman said. “It’s going to turn your way if you keep believing, keep fighting.”
The Wizards (10-31) had to wait until reaching the halfway point of the season to finally move out of the NBA basement after their resounding win over the short-handed Timberwolves. They are a half-game better than the Charlotte Bobcats and only a half-game worse than the Cleveland Cavaliers for the third-worst record in the league. But their sights are much higher, though the playoffs appear to be a fantasy with them trailing the Boston Celtics (20-23) by nine games for the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference.
“Keep moving up. Keep moving up,” point guard A.J. Price said. “It’s a long season, take it one game at a time and see what happens.”
Price didn’t want to count out the Wizards from making a run and the reason for the optimism is also the reason why he is no longer starting: John Wall.
Washington is 5-3 with Wall in the lineup after starting the season 5-28 without him. And while the Wizards beat Oklahoma City the game before Wall suited up, his return to practice in the days leading up to that victory cannot be discounted.
“I think everybody is happy to see me back on the court because they seen how hard I was working to get back into shape to be on the court with those guys,” Wall said after scoring 14 points and handing out five assists in his first start of the season, the Wizards’ fourth consecutive win at home.
Wall’s debut after missing nearly three months with a stress injury in his left knee coincided with Price, Trevor Ariza and Trevor Booker returning from extended injury absences and both Nene and Emeka Okafor rounding into shape. But Wall has been the engine, with his high motor and blazing speed changing the tempo and applying pressure on the defense.
The Wizards are averaging 100.8 points, shooting 47.5 percent from the field, 43.4 percent from beyond the three-point line and outscoring opponents by 5.6 points with Wall. At Verizon Center, the numbers have been more impressive, with them shooting 53.3 percent from the field, 43.6 percent from three-point range and outscoring opponents by 17.3 points.
They beat Atlanta by 10, Orlando by 29 and never trailed against the Timberwolves, building a 23-point lead before gliding to the finish.
“Feels good. I’m sure we wish we could win every game like that,” said Martell Webster, who was adamant that the victory wasn’t any more special since it came against the team that bought him out last summer after two injury-plagued seasons in Minnesota. “Just another win.”
After a lengthy five-game road trip out west, the Wizards arrived in Washington from Salt Lake City around 5 a.m. on Thursday and had the rest of the day to rest and recuperate. During the morning shoot-around, Wittman urged his players not to give into any possible fatigue or jet lag and take advantage of a team that was missing all-star Kevin Love as well as Nikolas Pekovic, Brandon Roy and Alexey Shved. He inserted Wall into the starting lineup for the first time this season the starters only needed to work three quarters before getting the rest of the night off.
“Progress. Progress,” Okafor said. “Played the game well. Got a convincing win. At this point, we can’t have any excuses. We just came with the mind-set that this is a game we could win if we did what we were supposed to do.”
The Wizards will now get to see what they are really made of as they host the Chicago Bulls on Saturday at Verizon Center. Wittman said, “We’re going to find a stern test.”
But Wall is excited about the challenge and what his team can accomplish in the final 41 games.
“It feels good. We wish we had everybody healthy, but things happen in this league. You’ve just got to come out and play,” Wall said. “And I’m happy I’ve got some games left. Got a lot of basketball games left. Just see how many you can win and see where the season takes you.”