PHILADELPHIA — John Wall once had braided hair that extended well below his shoulders just so that he could resemble his favorite NBA player, a relentless little guy whose game he mimicked. Bradley Beal had cornrows as well, topping off the look with a headband, sleeves, Reebok sneakers and wristbands that read, “The Answer.”
So, while the Washington Wizards had an important task in front of them on Saturday night at Wells Fargo Center, most of the players couldn’t avoid being little kids again and getting lost in a moment that — to them — trumped their attempt to win a sixth straight game. Former Georgetown star Allen Iverson was getting his jersey retired, and several members of the team took advantage of the extended halftime to stand in the tunnel and watch in awe as No. 3 was raised to the rafters.
“I felt like that was bigger than what we had going on at the moment,” Trevor Ariza said after the Wizards defeated the Philadelphia 76ers, 122-103. “What he’s done for all of us in our journeys to the NBA, I feel we like we had to pay our respect.”
On an emotional night in which he admitted to being nervous about being in the same building with 76ers legends Julius Erving and Moses Malone and Hall of Fame point guard Gary Payton, Ariza paid his respect to Iverson, a four-time scoring champ, the best way he could — by scoring a career-high 40 points. He also connected on his first eight attempts from three-point range, single-handedly outperforming the 76ers from long distance. Philadelphia had five threes — one fewer than Ariza made in the first quarter, when he set a franchise record for most made threes in the period.
Six players scored in double figures for the Wizards, who kept their longest winning streak in two seasons alive — claiming the past three wins without Nene — by pummeling a struggling 76ers team for the third time this season.
“Kind of felt like a playoff atmosphere. That’s how I viewed it, in terms of the fans, how they was, and the intensity from the tip,” Beal said after scoring 11 points. “It was a special night, but we didn’t want to get dragged into that moment. It’s definitely one to remember.”
The 76ers (15-44) have lost 13 in a row and, late in the fourth quarter, the only remaining suspense for the Wizards was whether Ariza would reach 40 and Wall would match his career high in assists. In one frenzied sequence, both marks were achieved as Wall dived to the floor to wrestle away a loose ball and tossed it from his back to an open Ariza for a layup. Wall hopped up from the ground and pumped his fist after collecting his 16th assist, showing more emotion for Ariza than for any of the 17 points Wall scored in the game.
“What more can you ask for a guy who would do anything to see you succeed and see you strive to be the best you could be,” Ariza said. “That’s what we do here now. We all want to see each other succeed, because at the end of the day, we know if one of us succeeds, we all succeed — especially trying to go where we want to go.”
The Wizards (31-28) are three games above .500 for the first time in since the end of the 2007-08 season and followed up a draining, 134-129 triple overtime win in Toronto by setting a season-high with 74 points in the first half. Marcin Gortat had his seventh consecutive game with double-digit points (13) and rebounds (14). Martell Webster had 17 points and Trevor Booker, making his third straight start in place of Nene, had 14.
“A lot of players was really afraid of this game, that we could fall asleep and lose this game,” Gortat said. “I can say we’re getting more mature. We’re really happy we got this game.”
Camping out in the corners, with plenty of time to square up and shoot, Ariza became the first player in franchise history to have two games in which he made at least six three pointers in a quarter without a miss; he was 7 for 7 in Houston last month, when he set another franchise mark with 10 three-pointers in a game.
“The flamethrower was out there,” Ariza said, chuckling.
When Ariza made a layup to give the Wizards a 28-13 lead, he was personally outscoring the 76ers with 17 points. He finished with 24 points in the first period — more than any other player would score in the game — and was upset that he didn’t have 25.
After making a running bank shot and missing a free throw with six-tenths of the second left in the period, Ariza angrily swung his arms. He wanted more. Wall made sure that his night was complete by scrapping for the ball and getting him 40 points. Ariza’s previous career high was 33.
“That was great for me,” Wall said of his emotional response. “He did a great job, and you want to see a guy that’s putting in the work and doing the extra sacrifices for our team of guarding the best players on any given night. You try to reward him for that, and that’s what I wanted him to do, to get a 40-point game.”
Afterward, Wall spoke with much greater reverence about Iverson. “That’s the player I looked up to in my era. I’m happy and excited to play on the night he got his jersey retired,” Wall said, adding that he would like to someday see No. 2 raised at Verizon Center. “That’s my goal. I want to be the best point guard to play the game and I want to bring a championship to D.C. And I think we’re taking the right steps. And I think I’m improving as a player.”