OKLAHOMA CITY — Whenever John Wall plays the Oklahoma City Thunder, he keeps an eye out for shot-blocking specialist Serge Ibaka. He either tries to avoid him entirely, or seeks to draw contact when he drives. In the first quarter of the Washington Wizards’ 103-80 loss to the Thunder on Wednesday, however, Ibaka had his sights set on Wall.
Ibaka switched onto Wall after Kevin Seraphin set a screen near the three-point line, but Wall couldn’t shake the long-armed 6-foot-9 defender. Wall circled to the corner, jab-stepped to get some separation, leaned left and attempted a fadeaway jumper.
“I thought he was away from me,” Wall said. “He comes out of nowhere and smacks it into the stands.”
Wall’s 47-point game on Monday against Memphis brought him some well-earned accolades. It also earned him extra attention from the Thunder. Before the game, all-star point guard Russell Westbrook said his team “for sure” wasn’t going to allow Wall to have a similar performance. Oklahoma City (53-19) made the night miserable for Wall at Chesapeake Energy Arena.
Facing a wall of defenders almost every time he put the ball on the floor, Wall wasn’t given much space to operate and he and the undermanned Wizards eventually succumbed to a stifling defensive effort. Wall finished with 18 points and a game-high 12 assists, but he missed 15 of 18 shots, contributing to a poor shooting night in which his team shot just 32.1 percent from the field. The Wizards were also 5 of 20 from beyond the three-point line.
“Those nights are going to happen,” said Coach Randy Wittman, who pulled Wall from the game with 5 minutes 44 seconds remaining and the Wizards trailing by 20. He slapped hands with his tired star before Wall lowered his head and grabbed a seat.
In one of those oddities that is partially a result of the lockout-shortened schedule, the Wizards hadn’t lost to the Thunder in more than two years and arrived in town with a two-game win streak against the defending Western Conference champions.
The Wizards (26-45) defeated Oklahoma City, 101-99, on Jan. 7 as rookie Bradley Beal made a running one-handed layup to seal the win, leading a skeleton crew lacking Wall, Nene and Jordan Crawford (since traded to Boston). But the Wizards were down to just eight players for the rematch, with Beal (sprained left ankle), Nene (sore right knee), Trevor Ariza (flu) and A.J. Price (sore groin) sidelined. Backup center Jason Collins came down with the flu and was forced to sit as well.
Wall helped the Wizards overcome those adverse circumstances against Memphis as he got to the foul line, made a ridiculous string of jump shots and said he was playing “out of my mind.”
Against the Thunder, Wall could only get to the foul line, converting 11 of 14 free throw attempts. Playing with incredible confidence and control, Wall had put together the best shooting month of his career, but Oklahoma City provided a rough obstacle with the imposing front line of Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins. Ibaka finished with four blocked shots and Wall began to tire in the third quarter as he front-rimmed two open jumpers.
“I had good shots, I just felt like I was fatigued. That’s no excuse but I’ve got to be able to make shots,” Wall said. “They focused on me pretty well. I had the same shots I had the other night, I just didn’t make them. I was very short today. Nobody really had a great shooting night and they was just too powerful for us to stand.”
Westbrook, District native Kevin Durant and reserve Kevin Martin combined for 59 points on just 27 shots as the Thunder dominated the Wizards in second half, turning an eight-point halftime lead into a laugher. The Thunder outscored the Wizards, 30-21, to take an 83-66 lead into the final period. They already had enough points to claim a victory.
“They were looking for blood,” said Garrett Temple, one of just two players who started in the win over the Thunder two months ago. “They remember the game we played against them, didn’t have John, didn’t have Nene. But again, if we made shots, the game would’ve been a lot closer. We fought hard.”
Temple had 13 points, Seraphin and Cartier Martin both scored 12 and Trevor Booker had 10 points as the Wizards dropped to 7-28 on the road. They also finished the season at 14-16 against Western Conference teams.
“I’m as proud of these guys as I was our last game against Memphis,” Wittman said. “It’s not about wins and losses, it’s about how we play. We went out, eight guys, some of our key guys out, and we battled. They fought their heart out. We didn’t have a good shooting night and this is a good team. We just couldn’t get anybody hot.”