The Washington Wizards wanted to remove all doubt erase any suspense, and avoid finding themselves in any situation that remotely resembled their last meeting with the Brooklyn Nets. That heartbreaking double-overtime loss last month was still fresh on their minds as they unleashed more solid team play, more spectacular plays from John Wall, more marksmanship from Martell Webster, more interior dominance from Nene, and more suffocating defense to deliver a decisive 89-74 defeat to another playoff contender at Verizon Center.
The Nets entered the game tied for the fourth-best record in the Eastern Conference, but they left with the same frustration and bewilderment as the past two — and eight of the past nine overall — visitors to Washington. With wins over the Los Angeles Clippers, New York Knicks and Nets, the Wizards (14-35) are playing with a confidence and cohesion that belies their record, and the postgame locker room is now filled with laughter from Webster’s jokes instead of disgust and disappointment.
“This week has been a good week,” Trevor Ariza said. “We’ve beat some really good teams. Teams that everyone are talking about as contenders. I think we are on the right path.”
Nene had his second double-double in a row, recording team highs with 20 points and 11 rebounds, and won his individual duel against Nets all-star center Brook Lopez. Webster connected on three three-pointers and scored 16 points and Wall had 15 points and nine assists, bringing fans out of their seats in the fourth quarter when he whirled the ball around his waist on a break, stopped in front of two defenders and flipped an underhand pass to Ariza for a slam dunk that put the Wizards ahead by 16.
“If this team was healthy in the beginning, I feel like we’d be top four in the East. I really do feel confident in this team,” reserve forward Chris Singleton said after the Wizards swept their last homestand before the all-star break. “It’s tough to look at the standings, because we let so many games get away from us. Especially in the beginning — we’re in it, we’re in it, the fourth quarter, it goes down the drain. But we’re there.”
The Wizards jumped above the Orlando Magic for the third-worst record in the Eastern Conference with the victory, but they owe somewhat of a debt of gratitude to the Nets, with their 115-113 double-overtime loss on Jan. 4 setting them up for their recent run of dominance at Verizon Center. That loss — which featured a bizarre overtime meltdown in which the Wizards blew an eight-point lead with 75 seconds remaining and a buzzer-beating jumper by Nets guard Joe Johnson — helped establish a style of play and renewed focus that the Wizards have used to win 10 of their past 17 games.
“It did hurt,” Coach Randy Wittman said of that loss last month. “That was a tough one to lose. I reminded them about it. I don’t think I had to.”
Wall practiced for the first time the day before the Wizards lost to Brooklyn (29-21), with players crediting his presence for uplifting the energy level and focus in practice. Wall didn’t make his debut until a week later against Atlanta. Since Wall has come back, the Wizards have gone 9-7 and they are 7-1 at home, with five wins coming by double digits.
“I feel like we could be in a playoff spot right now. You don’t give up on a season this early,” Wall said. “My job was to come back — and I appreciate my teammates letting me come back — and play the way I wanted to. The first couple of games back I came off the bench. I wanted to bring a spark to the team, play the way I play, just get easy shots for guys.”
Bradley Beal returned after missing the previous five games with a sore right wrist, but was limited to just three points on 1-for-5 shooting in 18 minutes. Beal’s only made basket came late in the first quarter, when he drilled a three-pointer off the glass to give the Wizards a 21-20 lead.
The Wizards didn’t have to worry about trailing the rest of the game, after forcing Brooklyn into missing their first 12 shots of the period and holding them without a field goal until Lopez (13 points) finally made a layup to bring his team within 40-24 with 3 minutes 36 seconds left in the half.
The Nets scored just 11 points on 4-for-22 shooting in the period and the Wizards entered the locker room with a 51-31 lead — their most lopsided halftime lead of the season. “We won that game defensively,” Wittman said. “That was one of our better defensive efforts for 48 minutes.”
At the break, Wittman urged his players to “get greedy” and keep building upon the lead. The Wizards went ahead, 62-39, when Emeka Okafor made an awkward turnaround jumper with six minutes left in the third period.
The Wizards allowed the Nets to go on a 14-0 run, getting within 62-53 when point guard Deron Williams (20 points) stole the ball from reserve A.J. Price and sprinted up the floor for an easy layup. Price answered with a three-pointer from the right corner to shut down the run.
Former Wizard Andray Blatche, who was amnestied last July after several disappointing seasons was able to escape with a win in his last visit, but Wizards fans reveled in his failures in the rematch. Blatche was booed every time he touched the ball and responded to the jeers with more poor play. He shot just 2 of 9, missing a dunk and having another dunk attempt blocked by Nene, and was 1 for 6 from the foul line.
“I'm not homesick at all,” Blatche said. “I'm real happy to be where I'm at right now. There's no part of me that wants to come back here to the Wizards.”
With this latest run, the Wizards and their fans feel likewise.