As he got dressed before the Washington Wizards hosted the Boston Celtics on Sunday, John Wall admitted he was “not enjoying myself playing basketball” with the team playing poorly to start the season. But Wall vowed that he would stop “thinking too much,” get back to playing with his instincts and have fun again.
Coach Flip Saunders, concerned with Wall’s demeanor in a discouraging loss at Milwaukee two nights earlier, went further before Sunday’s game: “I told him, if he doesn’t play hard and he doesn’t have a smile on his face, I’m going to take him out.”
In the 94-86 loss to the Celtics at Verizon Center, Wall played with more passion and desire, encouraged his teammates, and finished with his best game of the season: 19 points, season highs of eight assists and seven rebounds and just one turnover. But the team’s overall performance didn’t give him much to smile about.
“My coaches talked to me and told me what I have to do to be effective — just play, have fun and play my game. That’s what I did. I think the thing is, just try to win,” Wall said. “It ain’t no fun” losing.
The Wizards are the NBA’s only winless team and have opened the season at 0-4 for the first time since 2008-09, when they lost their first five games and matched the franchise-worst record for an 82-game season at 19-63.
They couldn’t shoot or defend early and discovered they could do both too late, and Wall had to watch his counterpart, Rajon Rondo, flaunt the benefits of being surrounded by a cast that features three future Hall of Famers.
Rondo spread the ball around, picked the right spots for his own scoring opportunities and recorded his 14th career triple-double. He had more points (18) than all but two Wizards, one fewer assist (14) than the Wizards as a team and more rebounds (11) than every Wizard except JaVale McGee.
“That’s what Rondo does,” Saunders said. “But I thought that John, he had the best game he’s had so far. I can just judge John by where he’s at and how he’s played so far. I thought he did a better job of running our team and getting that and we made progress.”
Nick Young finished with 18 points and JaVale McGee had 16 points, 14 rebounds and five blocks, but the Wizards were unable to overcome an early deficit. The Celtics used crisp ball movement and defensive pressure to establish a double-digit lead eight minutes into the game. Boston led 51-34 at halftime, shooting 55.6 percent from the field and holding the Wizards to 28.2 percent.
The Wizards broke out of their shooting slump in the second half, getting within 65-58 when Jordan Crawford made a three-pointer — his only field goal of the game — and reserve Ronny Turiaf kicked wildly in celebration. Turiaf was forced to leave the game shortly thereafter with a bruised left hand and is doubtful to play in the rematch Monday in Boston.
The Celtics again extended the lead to 13 when Ray Allen hit a three-pointer in the fourth quarter. But Wall made a runner in the lane and Trevor Booker made a driving layup, then had a steal and a dunk to again bring the Wizards within six points with 7 minutes 49 seconds remaining. They would get no closer as Ray Allen (13 points) and Kevin Garnett (24 points, nine rebounds) helped put the game away. Garnett made two free throws, Allen made a nifty layup, then Rondo froze Crawford and Booker on a drive and zipped a beautiful bounce pass to Garnett for a reverse layup that restored order.
“We always get down by 10, 15 in the first half and always find a way to fight back, but you’re taking a lot of energy from yourself,” Wall said. “I think down the fourth quarter, the last couple of minutes, we didn’t have the kind of energy we needed to make a comeback.”
Andray Blatche was unable to completely get out of his “funk.” He finished with just 10 points, converting 4 of 7 field goal attempts after shooting an abysmal 11 for 41 (26.8 percent) in the first three games. But he also had a team-high four turnovers and allowed Garnett to get into his head.
Blatche has had some history with Garnett and the all-star forward made sure to fluster Blatche by talking to him and repeatedly grabbing him. At one point in the third quarter, Blatche had grown upset about not getting a call and Wizards assistant Sam Cassell, Garnett’s former teammate in Minnesota, shouted at Blatche during a timeout, encouraging him to get focused.
The Wizards wore their red, white and blue road uniforms, which was appropriate since the team gave the sort of poor performance it more often reserves for road games and Verizon Center was populated with many Celtics fans. Disgruntled Wizards fans booed the players as they left the court.
“We’re staying positive. It’s still 66 games in the season,” said Roger Mason Jr., who was back in the lineup after being ruled ineligible for the previous game in Milwaukee because the Wizards submitted an incorrect roster. “We have goals on this team. but it’s not going to just happen. You have to make it happen.”