The Wizards never seemed to be nervous, even as the crowd started to get antsy after the Portland Trail Blazers cut a 15-point, fourth-quarter lead down to six with 72 seconds remaining. And any angst within Verizon Center would’ve been understandable, considering what the Wizards had done in similar situations, in the same arena, with chances to get above .500 this season.
Already, the Wizards had blown a five-point lead with 50 seconds remaining before losing to the lowly Milwaukee Bucks in overtime. They let Jeff Green hit a late three-pointer to force overtime before losing to the struggling Boston Celtics. And, after a series of poor offensive possessions Monday against a quality foe in Portland, the Wizards were in desperate need for a basket, a free throw, something, to close a horrendous chapter in franchise history.
Coming out of a timeout, Bradley Beal dribbled around a screen by Nene, then dropped a bounce pass out to the Brazilian big man after drawing a double team. Nene hadn’t hit many shots all night, but he was too open not to take it.
“Fortunately,” Beal said, “he made it.”
After Nene saw the shot drop, he looked toward the ceiling, lifted his hands and flashed a huge smile as he headed to the bench. Nene made the jumper that secured a 100-90 victory over the Trail Blazers to complete a long, agonizing journey to a winning record that required 1,556 days and 355 games.
This season, the Wizards (24-23) failed in attempts to go above .500 against Detroit, Milwaukee, Dallas, Detroit gain, Boston, Utah and the Los Angeles Clippers. The eighth time proved to be the charm. Word to the late Walt Bellamy.
Washington’s time with an even or losing record was easily the longest active streak in the NBA. No other team in the league had come remotely close to being down for that long. Milwaukee has now moved to first at 62 games, while Boston is second with 49.
“It feels good to have you guys off our backs, taking about .500, .500, .500,” Beal said afterward with a laugh. “But it’s great for us to be able to get over that hump and now we can move forward and continue to get wins.”
Beal only had to wait until his second season to finally be a part of a winning team, but John Wall, Kevin Seraphin and Trevor Booker had only known losing for their first three seasons in the NBA. Jan Vesely and Chris Singleton had also lost their entire careers. Rookies Otto Porter Jr. and Glen Rice Jr. have basically been spoiled.
Players who have arrived in the past two years – Nene, Trevor Ariza, Martell Webster, Marcin Gortat, Eric Maynor, Garrett Temple and Al Harrington – have all been on teams that have won at least 50 games in a season.
The Wizards haven’t won more than 45 games since the 1978-79 season, so the bar for what’s deemed a success, in comparison, is quite low. For that reason, Ariza – the only player on the team with an NBA championship ring – didn’t want to completely diminish the latest accomplishment for a franchise that was watching JaVale McGee, Andray Blatche and Nick Young founder not too long ago.
“I’m sure it feels good for them,” Ariza said of the Wizards who had never been on a winning team. “I don’t want to take that feeling away from them. I also want them to know that you can’t be complacent and just want to stop here. It’s still a lot more out there to achieve. This team can achieve that, we just got to keep playing and not worry about we are one game over .500, if we do that, I feel like we will be okay.”
Four days after making the all-star team for the first time, Wall was able to scratch off another, much more modest goal off the list.
Former Maryland standout Joe Smith now stands alone the former No. 1 overall with the most games played without having a winning record (241). Wall finally reached the feat in his 231st career game. It probably would’ve happened sooner had he been able to start last season healthy. He returned from a stress injury in his left knee after the Wizards had spotted him a 5-28 record. Since he came back, the Wizards have gone 48-48.
“You give credit to the young guys that have been here for a while for how hard they work and trying to get better,” Wall said. “You give a great job to our coaching staff and our organization, the people up top for doing the right thing and trying to make this team better. It also starts with being here as a family. We all trust each other. We all hold each other accountable on the basketball court, everything we do as a team.”
For now, the Wizards are finally a winning team. Never has .511 looked so good.
“I don’t want them to focus on a number, I want them to focus on the act of why you’re 24-23. And that’s where you keep it going,” Coach Randy Wittman said. “That’s how you do it, each and every night the same way. We’re not changing. We’re playing one way. This way’s the way we’ve got to play.”