If the Washington Wizards had known on opening night that getting their first win was going to require 13 games, four starting lineups, three overtime losses, the firing and hiring of a point guard, the coach openly wondering if he was “dumb,” the earlier-than-expected return of a Brazilian big man with a bad left foot, a player-venting session and a fourth-quarter rally after blowing a 15-point lead, then they all should’ve purchased a Powerball ticket.
One win hardly provided the same payout of a $580 million lottery jackpot. But the Wizards’ 84-82 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers on Wednesday at Verizon Center gave them something else that they desperately needed during a first month that has proven to be challenging and occasionally heartbreaking.
“Now we have,” Nene said, taking a deep breath, “fresh air.”
The Wizards might be able to breathe a little easier after snapping a franchise-worst 12-game losing skid to open the season, but they still have 69 games left and every other team in the NBA has at least three victories. No longer winless, they are still in the dark.
“It’s only one. It’s still a long season. We’ve got a lot of digging to do to get up out of this hole,” veteran forward Trevor Ariza said after his first win with the organization. “I don’t think that we can relax. We’re only 1-12.”
After going 216 days between victories that count, the schedule won’t allow the Wizards to relax with their next four games against teams with winning records, beginning on Friday in New York. The Knicks, who have the second-best record in the Eastern Conference at 10-4, walloped the Wizards by 38 points and held them to a franchise-low 22 field goals when the teams last met in April.
“We have faith every game that we’re going to win the game,” rookie Bradley Beal said after getting his first NBA win. “There’s no doubt in our minds, nor did we think going in, ‘We’re about to lose.’ We showed that we’re capable of winning now, and we just have to keep it up, keep doing what we’re doing.”
The Wizards’ unexpected slow start — even with John Wall yet to play because of a stress injury in his left knee and Nene limited to just three games, in a reduced role, because of plantar fasciitis — opened up the team to ridicule from national basketball pundits and even some of their own fans; a handful showed up to recent home games wearing paper bags on their heads.
But Coach Randy Wittman and his players all denied that outside negativity eroded their spirits or had any influence on the victory over Portland.
“That’s going to happen when you’re 0-12, guys are going to make fun of you. That’s our business. . . . Nobody wants to be in that position. Those guys don’t want to be in that position,” Wittman said. “When you get to this level, you’ve got to have some thick skin. You’ve got to be able to overcome those kind of things. And for the most part, these guys have. We have battled and battled and battled, with a few exceptions and that’s not an easy thing to do.”
If anything, the Wizards were pushed over the edge after an embarrassing 26-point loss on Monday against the San Antonio Spurs, with owner Ted Leonsis sitting courtside until the pitiful end. Wittman allowed his players to vent and offer suggestions before practice the next morning. The open dialogue allowed players to unload some of their frustrations about the season, their unsettled roles, and a system that remains confusing for a team with several newcomers. “We just basically came together, like we need turn this around for ourselves. Not for anybody else,” reserve forward Chris Singleton said. “We don’t want to go down in history as one of the worst teams ever.”
Wall is expected to be back in uniform some time in the next two weeks and Nene is slowly getting back into game shape, but the team has gained more confidence after finally experiencing a long-awaited breakthrough and doing everything it hadn’t done in a series of close losses: They built a seemingly comfortable lead, Jordan Crawford made the gutsy three-pointer to thwart Portland’s 16-0 fourth-quarter run and Emeka Okafor made a huge defensive stop and two clutch free throws in the final seconds.
For good measure, Okafor also saved an exuberant fan from falling over a railing after the win.
“We changed our whole mental approach and we just need to continue to rise,” reserve swingman Martell Webster said. “We are definitely the underdog. We are definitely looked upon as the losers of the league, but that’s okay. We believe in each other and that’s the only thing that matters.”
Despite the start, Crawford doesn’t believe that they have to finish near the bottom of the standings for the fifth season in a row. “Continue to work, continue not to take this game for granted. You’re in a great position in the NBA to make history,” Crawford said, when asked how the Wizards can build upon a small droplet of success. He didn’t elaborate on the kind of history the Wizards would make, only suggesting that they have a chance “to do what no team has done before. We've got a good team, a lot of positive people. We’ll see where this takes us.”