John Wall wasn’t anywhere near the building during Friday night’s 115-107 win over the Cavaliers, as the No. 1 overall pick was forced to serve a one-game suspension for throwing a punch at Miami Heat reserve center Zydrunas Ilgauskas on Wednesday. But Wall’s teammates more than had his back, responding to the absence of their best player with some incredible individual performances.
Crawford moved over from shooting guard to start at point guard in place of Wall and had his first career triple-double with 21 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds. Blatche returned to the starting lineup for the first time since coming back from a sprained right shoulder and matched his career-high with 36 points. He also grabbed a career-high 19 rebounds and set a new franchise record with 16 offensive rebounds — the most in the NBA this season.
JaVale McGee added 25 points, 8 rebounds and 3 blocked shots as the Wizards (19-56) won for the second time in three games, continuing to remain competitive in spite of unfavorable situations.
“We really did not make a big thing of it,” Coach Flip Saunders said of the Wall’s suspension. “All we said was John’s not here; other guys have to step up. We had great individual performances.”
Blatche missed 11 games last month and came off the bench in the loss to Miami. But with the Wizards needing more offensive production without Wall, Saunders gave him the start and Blatche responded with his most active performance of the season — and obviously, the best of his career. He relentlessly attacked the offensive glass, many times after his own misses. He also was aggressive and deliberate with his scoring opportunities.
By halftime, Blatche had 22 points and 12 rebounds — with 11 offensive, breaking his his previous career high of seven. He said his performance came as the result of missing so much time and becoming more appreciative of the chance to play again.
“I’m just happy to be back,” Blatche said. “I had a chance to look, and I was kind of hurt, not playing a couple weeks. The whole time I was out, it made me see that don’t take nothing for granted. Now I’m just coming back and playing with a lot of energy.”
Blatche rebounded 16 of the Wizards’ first 36 missed shots and Othyus Jeffers, a player on his second 10-day contract and getting his first NBA start for Wall, couldn’t resist the opportunity to have fun with Blatche. “He rebounded his own shots didn’t he?” Jeffers said with a laugh. “He did a Moses Malone. I told him to go for 30 and 30, but I guess he ran out of gas at the end.”
Crawford helped the Wizards become the first team in NBA history to have two rookies get triple-doubles in the same season (Wall had one his sixth career game, against Houston. With McGee recording a triple-double two weeks ago in Chicago, the Wizards also are the first team since the 2003-04 Los Angeles Lakers to have three different players get triple-doubles in the season — Hall of Famer Karl Malone and likely future Hall of Famers Kobe Bryant and Gary Payton accomplished that feat for the Lakers.)
Crawford overcame a slow start and a sore lower back to fill in admirably for Wall. He opened the game with a shaky post-entry pass to Blatche, which resulted in a turnover and breakaway dunk for J.J. Hickson (21 points, 10 rebounds). But he bounced back and became a stellar playmaker, setting up his teammates with some sweet dishes. During an 11-0 fourth-quarter run, Crawford found McGee inside for a layup, then came right back to him, drawing the defense before flipping a no-look, left-handed pass to McGee for a dunk.
“I knew I had to provide a couple of point guard skills, because John was out. Try to get my teammates involved and they did a good job of making me look good by making shots,” said Crawford, who had 15 points and nine rebounds in the second half alone.
When told that his teammates said he made the game easier for them, Crawford smiled and shook his head. “They said that? Oh man, they’re lying.”
Jeffers, a power forward trapped in a running back’s body, scored 13 points and had four rebounds and Saunders credited his boundless energy for becoming infectious for the team. Saunders added that Maurice Evans and Crawford have brought an attitude since arriving in a trade with Atlanta that raised the effort of the team.
“I think we brought some mental toughness,” Evans said. “I think we brought some confidence, for sure, coming from a winning situation. We hadn’t lost a great deal of games. So I think as a team, everyone is growing and gaining so much confidence, and that’s what you want at the end of the year, a team that’s going to get stronger.”