Even with an injury-weakened roster, the San Antonio Spurs are a formidable team. And for the Washington Wizards, the Spurs are a great measuring stick.
Although the Wizards have improved since their disastrous encounter with the Spurs in early November, they weren’t up to the challenge against one of the NBA’s longtime elite teams Wednesday night in a 125-118 loss in double overtime. It showed as the Spurs pulled away in the second extra session.
San Antonio standouts Manu Ginobili and Kawhi Leonard sat out, and all-star point guard Tony Parker did not play after halftime. Still, with ageless future Hall of Famer Tim Duncan performing as brilliantly as ever, the Spurs extended their winning streak to 16 games against the Wizards.
Duncan was consistent throughout, posting 31 points, 11 rebounds and five assists. The combination of Duncan’s dominance and the three-point shooting of Danny Green and Patty Mills was too much for the Wizards, who wasted point guard John Wall’s 29 points and nine assists and squandered a 17-point first-half lead en route to dropping back to .500.
The Wizards, though, shouldn’t feel too bad about having a break-even record again after briefly producing a winning mark for the first time since the 2009-10 season. After all, Washington’s performance at Verizon Center was much better than its clunker in San Antonio.
No one knew it at the time, but the Wizards’ best moment of the season occurred in the aftermath of their worst. Nene’s postgame rant about the Wizards’ clueless play — he could have made his point quicker by just holding up a picture of Wall — after a 13-point loss on the Spurs’ home court threatened to tear the team apart. His harsh critiques, however, helped bring the Wizards together.
Nene said publicly what others in the organization were discussing privately during Washington’s 2-6 start: Wall was leading the Wizards off a cliff. Initially stung by the criticism, Wall got over it and took a different approach, which turned out to be the right one.
Nearly three months later, Wall is playing at the highest level of his career, and the Wizards are having their most fun in years.
Despite Wednesday’s setback, Washington generally has been smarter on offense and tougher on defense. The Wizards regularly make the extra pass, communicate well and display confidence in their plan. They have defeated Western Conference powers Oklahoma City and Portland and pushed San Antonio on a four-game home stand that ends Friday against Cleveland.
That’s progress. Nene’s candor was the catalyst for change.
The veteran Brazilian big man had been frustrated about the team’s play long before the Spurs methodically dismantled the Wizards in San Antonio. But after watching the Spurs take the Wizards to school — the Washington Generals were more competitive against the Harlem Globetrotters — Nene went off to The Post’s Michael Lee, saying, “Our young guys must take their heads out their butts and play the right way because I’m getting tired of this.”
Wall and second-year shooting guard Bradley Beal are the only young players in prominent roles on the Wizards. Nene didn’t single out either player to Lee, but Wall was struggling at the time. It wasn’t hard to determine Wall was the main target of Nene’s attack.
The Wizards rewarded Wall with an $80 million extension in the offseason. At the time, Wall said his “main goal” was to win a championship. Early on this season, Wall showed no signs he knew how to play the right way to achieve that goal.
Wall’s impressive statistics weren’t helping the Wizards produce enough of the only number that matters: victories. In his fourth season, Wall still sped up when he should have slowed down. He took difficult shots instead of passing to teammates for easier ones. Wall wasn’t playing winning basketball. Someone needed to say something — and the most respected member of the locker room did.
“That’s part of being a professional team,” Coach Randy Wittman said. “Being able to take criticism or praise, listening to what’s being said [and] take it to heart, that’s always very important in building a team that’s united. I think we saw that happened.”
Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld prefers to keep problems in house, but “what [Nene] said had some substance. . . . We wanted to play like San Antonio. They play the team game. They play the right way, both offensively and defensively, and when a leader on your team speaks out, everybody listens.”
Eventually, Wall did. Sensing the Wizards had issues to resolve, veterans Trevor Ariza and Al Harrington called a players-only meeting. During the session, the Wizards reaffirmed they were united behind Wall. The support did wonders for Wall, whose decision-making has never been better.
“John has played great. And you know what? It was about accountability,” Grunfeld said. “The teammates were holding each other accountable, which is a good thing.”
Wall agreed. Talking through the situation “was what we needed to do for our team,” he told me recently. “We know what we’re capable of doing when we play the right way, but you always have to keep working.”
On Wednesday night, against a team they hope to emulate, the Wizards were reminded their work is far from finished.
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