ATLANTA — The shot felt good the moment Trevor Ariza leapt, kicked out his legs and fired from the opposing foul line in a hurried attempt to beat the buzzer. When it passed through the net, Ariza coolly turned to the Washington Wizards’ bench and flashed the slightest grin. He didn’t want to look too excited about connecting on a routine 80-foot jumper because, as he said afterward, “I do spectacular stuff like that all time.”
With its tame crowd and expanses of empty seats, Philips Arena is hardly the most intimidating building in the NBA. Yet it has been the location for several disappointing losses for the Wizards in recent years, including an overtime loss that came via a buzzer-beater when the teams met in December.
Coach Randy Wittman claimed he wasn’t aware his team had lost 11 straight games in Atlanta, dating from Jan. 11, 2008. But his players were well aware and took advantage of several fortunate breaks — beyond the heave from Ariza, an off-balance fallaway three-pointer from John Wall and an injury-riddled Hawks team — to put that streak behind them.
“We know what’s going on,” Ariza said. “It’s time to change tradition and take a different step.”
Atlanta was one of three cities, along with Indianapolis and Orlando, where Wall had never won since entering the league in 2010. But he scored a team-high 21 points, finishing his night with a fadeaway three-pointer that sent the few remaining fans scattering toward the exits in the final minute.
The win was significant for more reasons than ending a confounding losing streak. It also allowed the Wizards (26-28) to take a half-game lead over the Hawks for fifth place in the East.
“We needed a win,” Wittman said after the Wizards snapped a three-game losing streak that had seen them slide one spot in the conference standings. “It’s big, but we needed a win more than passing Atlanta.”
Wall also added a game-high 12 assists, finding center Marcin Gortat (14 points, 12 rebounds) for an alley-oop late that secured a wire-to-wire victory in which seven players scored in double figures — with Bradley Beal and Ariza both scoring 19 points — and the team handed out 30 assists.
Trevor Booker came off the bench to provide 12 points and a team-high four steals. “It feels great,” he said. “I know last time, they beat us at the buzzer in overtime. I know last year, they beat us at the buzzer. This time we just took it to them.”
Beal scored 15 points in the first half, burying a 20-foot jumper to give the Wizards a 50-30 lead in the second quarter. The game got a tad too close for comfort after Washington allowed the Hawks to get within one point in the third quarter. The unexpected offensive outburst from Booker — who made some tough jumpers and threw down a ferocious dunk — helped restore a more comfortable margin
“Wasn’t no nerves,” said Wall, whose tough three-pointer gave his team a 75-71 lead. “We made it hard on ourselves, but one thing Coach told us was keep playing the way we was playing. The way we played in the first half is the way we have to play as a team the rest of the season.”
The Wizards weren't going to get many better opportunities to end one of their more baffling skids. The Hawks (25-28) arrived at home depleted, undermanned, undersized and on a six-game losing streak.
All-star center Al Horford, who made the jumper over Booker to give the Hawks a 101-99 overtime win when the teams met Dec. 13, is out for the season with a torn pectoral muscle. His replacement, Pero Antic, was out with a stress fracture in his right ankle. His backup, Gustavo Ayon, was out with right shoulder injury. So that left the Hawks with 6-foot-8 Elton Brand as the lone center on the roster, giving the Wizards a decided advantage inside with a starting front line that featured 6-11 big men Nene and Gortat — and the 6-8 Ariza.
Despite the extreme height advantage, the Wizards didn't overemphasize getting the ball inside and instead relied on their shooting from beyond the three-point line. A night after being held to just four three-pointers against Toronto, the Wizards made 13 shots from long distance, with Ariza nailing a team-high five — including his shot at the end of the third quarter that gave the Wizards an eight-point lead.
In the huddle afterward, Wall said Ariza asked, “You like that?”
Martell Webster (13 points) joked around with the referees as they reviewed the shot to make sure that it counted. Webster told them it wasn't necessary and walked away shouting, “They're cheating. They're cheating.”
Even the referees had a good laugh.
“It was real cool,” Ariza said of the shot. “I’m just happy we got the win. They made their run. Throughout the game, all teams make runs. It’s how you respond. We responded well. Two desperate teams out there. It was our will versus theirs, and our will was stronger.”