John Wall let Boston Celtics guard Jordan Crawford sneak past him, then waited for him to go up for a short jumper and volleyball-spiked it toward the Washington Wizards’ bench. The block should have been the signature moment of a stellar, deflating defensive effort at TD Garden, but the ball landed directly in the hands of Celtics guard Avery Bradley, who buried a three-pointer from the left corner over Bradley Beal that ended a nearly six-minute field goal drought.
“That’s the worse way,” Wall said about the lone field goal the Wizards allowed during a 22-5 run that propelled them to a 106-99 victory over the Celtics. “I blame myself for that.”
But Coach Randy Wittman couldn’t find much fault in Wall’s performance on the defensive end in Boston. The Wizards chart players each game and provide a defensive rating based on how they contest shots, force players into bad shots, create deflections and turnovers and other categories.
After a game in which Wall had a season-high six steals and held Crawford scoreless in the fourth quarter, Wittman said Wall’s defensive score was the highest of his career and on the level of a superstar player.
“I told him to laminate it, put it on his wall and take that home,” Wittman said with a laugh. “And I said, ‘You screwed up. Because now you showed me you can do it.’ ”
Wittman said he has to stay on Wall because he has a tendency to “float” on defense, especially if he is guarding a point guard that is not looking to score. During his individual film studies with Wittman, Wall is encouraged to still apply pressure on the ball to disrupt the offense and force turnovers that could lead to easy, fast-break opportunities.
In Boston, Wall didn’t have that problem as he was constantly hounding the ball immediately after it was inbounded, throwing up his arms and leaping to cut off passing lanes.
“I think I’ve showed spurts of great defense at times, but don’t do it enough,” said Wall, adding that he had never scored above average on Wittman’s rating chart before the win in Boston. “For me to be the player that I want to be, to be a superstar, or all-star in this league, you do both ends on a nightly basis. That’s something I’m really focusing my mind on, watching film on that more and trying to be consistent and doing a better job on that side.”
Wall ranks third in the NBA in total steals with 56 and fourth among point guards in total blocks with 11. But his effort on defense has picked up during the Wizards’ three-game winning streak, which came after Wittman said Los Angeles Clippers guard Chris Paul “torched him” for 38 points and 12 assists in an embarrassing home loss on Dec. 14.
On Wednesday, Wall limited Deron Williams to just 5-of-13 shooting in a 113-107 win over Brooklyn, stripping Williams of the ball for a late dunk and slapping his layup attempt in the final seconds. Wall assumed that his former teammate Crawford would attempt to hurt the Wizards by setting up his teammates rather than dominating with his scoring, so he made a concerted effort to get the ball out of his hands and make him uncomfortable.
“I got to be the guy to put that pressure on guys,” Wall said. “Sometimes, I let point guards off the hook and let them do what they want and dictate what they want. They never let me do that. They’re going to be aggressive with me, and I think I did a great job these last three games.”
The Wizards (12-13) have allowed four of their past five opponents to reach triple digits, but they are finding a way to get stops when they matter most.
“I think we do a great job in practice and certain games, we show we can be a great defensive team,” Wall said, “but it’ll be spurts where you’ll be like, what defensive team is this, like, what are they doing?”
The Celtics led 92-84 when former Georgetown star Jeff Green made a layup with 6 minutes 14 seconds remaining, but the Wizards held them to just two field goals the rest of the way by forcing four turnovers and recording two blocked shots. Wall had a block and two steals during that stretch, intercepting one over-the-shoulder pass and drawing a foul to send the home crowd heading to the exits in the final minute.
Trevor Ariza was on the floor for the entire game-changing run, but never stopped to think about how decisively the Wizards had shut down the Celtics. “That’s why being locked in is important, because you don’t think about those things,” Ariza said. “You’re just worried about getting a stop and when that happens, it makes the offensive end easier.”
Wall scored seven of his 20 points in the fourth period, knocking down a 20-foot pull-up jumper that gave the Wizards the lead for good. And he also found Ariza for the three-pointer that allowed the Wizards to ease into the finish. Now comes the hard part for Wall.
“When you show him something, you’ve got to stick to it,” Wall said of Wittman. “That’s the toughest part, got to do it every night now.”