John Wall has learned to trust his Washington Wizards teammates in these late-game situations. So when the New Orleans Pelicans’ defense collapsed onto Wall, he scrapped the plan, instead letting someone else be the hero. “Sometimes you don’t have to take the last shot,” Wall said later. “Sometimes you might have to pass.”
Wall found the right guy to pass to on the game’s most meaningful sequence. Just seven seconds remained and the Wizards trailed by one when Wall inbounded to Nene. The Brazilian big man handed the ball right back to Wall. The all-star drove, hesitated, then jerked backward as the defense moved to him. Along the baseline, Nene cut to the basket and closed the evening with one more slam on a night filled with them, this one lifting the Wizards to a 94-93 win at Verizon Center.
Moments earlier, Nene was praying that Saturday night would end with the ball in his hands.
He had been dominant all night — he finished with 30 points — but a shooting foul had gifted forward Anthony Davis two free throws, which put the Pelicans ahead with little time to spare.
“No, no, no,” Nene thought to himself then. “That’s not right.”
Through three quarters, Wall had scored just six points. Guard Bradley Beal missed all five three-pointers he attempted. They emerged sloppy and allowed the Pelicans (23-32) to hang around, right until the moment Wall found Nene for the winner.
Later, Coach Randy Wittman seemed at a loss for answers as to why his team continues to struggle at home against inferior competition.
The Wizards are 14-14 at home, and Wittman joked that he might sequester the team into a hotel for home games, just to change their routine.
“We had no emotion in that first full half,” Wittman said. “We got into it and showed some emotion in the second half, played with some feeling and desire. That was the difference.”
With less than two minutes left in the opening period, Wall (10 points, 12 assists) committed his third turnover and turned to the bench. Behind him jogged the team’s newest addition, veteran point guard Andre Miller.
In his 14th NBA season, Miller had arrived from Denver in a three-team trade just two days ago and shed a warm-up shirt with no name across the back before entering. As advertised, he delivered a measure of calm to Washington’s second unit.
Miller just arrived, but he is aware of some of the issues surrounding this team.
“The thing around here is not playing down at home,” he said, “playing with more energy and finding a way to pick it up and get some shots to go down the stretch.”
Forward Al Harrington also appeared for the first time since early November, returning from knee surgery for the final 32 seconds of the half. By then, the game was tied, thanks in large part to the mid-range capabilities of Davis, who finished with 26 points and 11 rebounds.
But Nene eclipsed the Pelicans’ emerging star.
“That’s big,” Wall said. “We know he’s not going to get 30 every night. That’s the way we want him to play, like he did, freely. This seems like the best he did. Right away, when he caught the ball, he knew that he wanted to shoot his jump shot. He didn’t hesitate or pump fake. That’s the way you got to be.”
Mostly, though, Nene benefitted from dribble penetration from his guards, which parted the lane for high-percentage shots. But until he jogged down the floor, sticking one finger to the ceiling in celebration, the Wizards were following a familiar script. On their home floor, against a lesser opponent, they were consistent only in their propensity to commit turnovers, running the gamut from lost dribbles to bad passes.
Then, with New Orleans unwilling to go away, the intensity cranked up. Wall converted a turnover into a breakaway layup, his first points of the fourth quarter. Gortat followed that with a layup, another easy transition bucket that knotted the score at 89. The Pelicans had grown cold, so six free throws provided their only points for the final five minutes.
The final two free throws from Davis set the stage for the game’s last bit of drama. Nene knew Wall would be driving. When Wall found him going to the basket, he didn’t know how little time remained on the clock. But the ball was in his hands. That was enough.
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