As shot after shot dropped in the fourth quarter of the Wizards’ 101-94 victory over the Brooklyn Nets, Drew Gooden began to look more and more perturbed. He ran back down on defense, looking around at fans in the stands and his teammates on the bench with his hands held out, palms exposed, and shoulders shrugged.
“I was just saying, ‘What do I got to do?’ I’m not going to say who I was referring to,” Gooden said afterward, “but I was saying, ‘What do I have to do?’ ”
Gooden could’ve been talking about the other 29 teams in the NBA that failed to sign him while he was working out alone in Bethesda until late February. Or the Nets, who kept leaving him open. Or most likely the referees, who failed to reward his aggressiveness with the foul calls that Gooden felt he had earned.
“You can take it how you want to take it,” Gooden said with a laugh.
No matter the reason for his frustration, Gooden didn’t let it affect him negatively as he teamed with fellow 30-something reserves Al Harrington and Andre Miller to bring playoff intensity to mid-March at Verizon Center. What that trio had to do was let their younger counterparts understand what it will take to win games in another month.
The Wizards (35-31) haven’t been to the postseason since 2008 and home games this time of the year are usually filled with fans holding on to the promise of the future, or hoping for a few free Chick-Fil-A sandwiches. But on Saturday, the Wizards were fighting for playoff positioning with the Nets and close to slipping behind until “the old guys” turned around the game with some hard fouls, some gritty play and a refusal to give any ground to their opponents.
“I thought our guys Drew, Andre and Al changed the tone of the game when they went in. Their physicality bled under the other guys. That is what guys like them can do, they’ve been in games like this and not a lot of fouls called,” Coach Randy Wittman said. “Our bench saved the day, I thought.”
After the Wizards beat Orlando in overtime on Friday, Harrington told his teammates that he wasn’t sure if he would be able to play in back-to-back games as he continues to recover from right knee surgery. But in the fourth quarter, Harrington signaled the urgency of the moment when he elevated for a two-hand putback dunk that swung momentum directly in favor of the Wizards.
“It got us hype,” John Wall said of Harrington’s dunk. “It’s funny to see him dunk. The one he had a few weeks ago shocked us more than anything.”
Harrington’s stunning dunk against Utah on March 5 came during another veteran-fueled rally. He followed up his throw down against Brooklyn by driving for a layup, stealing the ball from Nets reserve Marcus Thornton and leading a break that ended with a putback layup by Bradley Beal.
Gooden then scored the next six points, giving the Wizards’ their first lead of the second half, 87-86. The 6-foot-10, 11-year veteran Gooden would finish with 21 points and record his fourth double-digit scoring game in the past six games, leaving more questions about how he went untouched for so long.
“Surprised might not be the word. I’m glad that he lasted this long, because he’s been a big spark for us, there is no question about it,” Wittman said. “Obviously, he worked and worked and worked to keep himself ready and it’s hard to do that, to wait until March before you play. You can easily give up on that and sit on the couch and get fat. He kept himself ready and it’s been a really good pick up for us.”
Gooden, Harrington and Miller were a combined plus-38 and helped the Wizards hold the Nets to just 5-of-16 shooting in the fourth period. Thornton gave the Nets an 89-87 lead with 6 minutes 22 seconds left, but Brooklyn would have a field goal for the rest of the game – partly because of some rough fouls on Andre Kirilenko.
Kirilenko went up for a layup but Gooden chopped down on him and sent him to line, where Kirilenko missed both free throws and rewarded the sellout crowd with free Chick-fil-A sandwiches. Wall followed by taking advantage of the Nets focusing on Gooden to drive down the lane for a layup to tie the game at 91. When Kirilenko went up for another layup, Harrington slung him to the ground and sent him back to the line, where he made one of two free throws.
“My thing is, coming off the bench and you have six fouls, why [not] use them? You can’t go home with them,” Gooden said. “I think that foul was okay, but the foul that Al had was a real playoff foul. I think that also set the tone. To have veterans like Al and Andre out there in that second unit is definitely a plus.”
Harrington scored six points and got a standing ovation from the crowd when he left the game to be replaced by Martell Webster. Miller left the floor quietly but he had two points, three assists and a steal and his ball pressure helped slow down the Nets’ offensive flow.
“The staff kind of trust us a little bit to go out there and make the right decisions. And we know what our roles are as older guys, just to come in and give the young guys a spell until they can come in and finish the game off,” Miller said. “It was a fun game. We tried to bring some energy to the game. I tried to pick up the ball defensively and just disrupt a little bit, the timing of the offense and help. Al got to the basket and made plays, and then Drew caught a little stroke and had it going, so we had to ride him out.”
Marcin Gortat had one of his least productive games as a Wizard, finishing with just two points on 1 of 8 shooting and Wittman decided to lean on Gooden without any regrets.
“Drew was huge. Obviously, Marc didn’t have it tonight, but that’s what it’s all about, one guy didn’t have it another guy bringing it. We have each other’s back,” Harrington said. “The biggest thing me Dre and Drew try to do is bring intensity, bring physicality into the game, because they was definitely what they tried to bring to us. We just tried to match it. At the end of the day, we was able to prevail.”
Though Harrington’s slam had a huge impact on the game, Wittman wasn’t ready to back away from his earlier suggestion for the 34-year-old forward to stay away from dunking. “I don’t know about the green light,” Wittman said with a grin. “It might be yellow now.”