Wizards stumble but don’t fall in Toronto

February 26, 2013

(Associated Press)

While making his way to speak to reporters on Monday before the Wizards took on the Toronto Raptors, Coach Randy Wittman tripped over some cords in the locker room and nearly hurt himself. Of course, tripped is describing it lightly.

“He did a triple jump,” Nene said afterward.

When Wittman returned to the locker room to make his final preparations for the game, his players decided to make light of his mishap. They greeted him with four bright orange cones surrounding the loose wires. Handwritten signs read, “Coach’s tripping area,” and “Danger!!! Help Coach watch out for cords.”

The Wizards are having fun with each other these days, and they were feeling even better after stumbling but avoiding a fall in Toronto. Despite a sloppy game in which they committed 20 turnovers and missed 19 of their first 24 shots, the Wizards (18-37) won their third win a row and snapped a three-game losing streak against teams with losing records.

With a 90-84 win, the Wizards finally beat a team below .500, Emeka Okafor said, because the Raptors “are playing winning basketball.”

Washington is doing the same, having won seven of nine to jump ahead of Cleveland for the fifth-worst record in the NBA. It is one game behind New Orleans for the seventh-worst. That’s a significant jump for a team that, using the hook from Toronto-based rapper Drake’s latest song, “Started from the bottom now the whole team here.”

In their past 23 games, the Wizards have gone 14-9, which represents the best stretch of basketball the team has played since making its last playoff appearance five years ago. They’ve won in blowout fashion, pulled out nail-biters, and even won ugly, as they were forced to do against a Raptors team that can certainly muck it up.

“These are the kind of things that we talked about since we’ve been heading in the direction we’re going,” Wittman said. “You’re not going to have an offensive game where you’re clicking or you’re playing as well as you want and you have to find a way to win those games. We’ve, with our defense, we’ve done that.”

A Wizards team that couldn’t shoot matched up with a Raptors team that couldn’t hold on to the ball and they combined for a dreadful first quarter. How bad was it? The Wizards forced the Raptors into eight turnovers in the period, but could only convert them into just two points. The two teams combined for just 12 field goals in the first quarter, with the Raptors holding a decided edge in field goal percentage despite missing 10 of 15 from the floor.

Raptors reserve John Lucas III was one of the few players on either team who could make a shot in the first half, and he drove inside to make a runner to put his team ahead 22-21. But A.J. Price helped the Wizards get going on a 19-6 run over the next seven minutes, as he hit a pull-up jumper then knocked down a three-pointer in front of the Wizards bench and nodded.

“I sensed that we were kind of stagnant, missing shots,” Price said after scoring 12 points. “We were getting shots and missing the one we felt we had, which were good. I just wanted to come out, shot fell good and they were falling.”

Bradley Beal and John Wall took over from there, combining to score the final 11 points of the half. Beal buried a three-pointer to put the Wizards ahead by 10 points, then Wall rebounded a missed dunk by Andrea Bargnani and raced up the court looking to find Beal on the break.

The ball squirted from Wall’s hands, but Wall recovered to get it, then dropped a layup. Wall laughed after the shot finally fell, with him struggling to get much else to drop.

“I don’t know,” Wall said, when asked about a 3-for-11 shooting performance. In his past five games, Wall is shooting just 30.4 percent (17 of 56) from the floor. “I feel like I make more jump shots than layups right now. I feel like I’m taking good shots, floaters and they are rimming in and out. As long as my teammates keep getting me the ball, I feel like I can get going at any time and as long as we’re winning – I know it’s going to be tough scoring every night – it’s always going to be somebody leading us. So I’m cool.”

Of late, Beal has stepped up to carry the offensive load, as the rookie had his third 20-point performance in the four games since the all-star break. He had 20 points on Monday night and also tied the Wizards’ franchise record for most three-pointers by a rookie in a season with 75. With 27 games remaining, Beal has a decent chance of setting a new record.

“With the confidence I have and the faith my coaches and teammates put in me, I feel if I’m put in a situation where I can make something happen,” Beal said.

After carrying the team through the first three quarters, Beal deferred to Nene, who overcame some shoulder pain to score nine points in the final period. Nene said he absorbed some hard fouls in the past week, with opposing players chopping down on his right arm as he went up to shoot. He wore a pack of ice on his shoulder as he sat through the second half. Nene also has some noticeable scratches on his arm, but he said that was “because guys don’t clip their nails. That was nothing.”

The Wizards had to hold off the Raptors late, as point guard Kyle Lowry made two three-pointers in the final 15 seconds to bring Toronto’s deficit to just five points. Ariza, who will never be mistaken for Drew Brees, tried to throw a full-court pass to Garrett Temple and was fortunate that Temple tripped over his own feet and fell to the ground.

Why? Because the officials thought Raptors forward Alan Anderson clipped Temple’s feet. The referees reviewed the play to see if it was a clear path foul, but since they couldn’t overturn the call, they simply awarded Temple two free throws.

Temple made one. But he had a nice souvenir of his time in Toronto when he showed up at his locker room stall. Wittman decided to place one of those bright orange cones in his seat to remind him to not be so clumsy.

Michael Lee is the national basketball writer for The Washington Post.
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Michael Lee · February 25, 2013