The significance of the Washington Wizards’ 108-101 victory over the Atlanta Hawks on Saturday night was nearly three decades in the making.
With eight wins in November, the Wizards recorded the franchise’s most victories in the month since 1984, when Michael Jordan was a rookie and the Bullets won eight of nine games under then-coach Gene Shue on their way to a rare playoff appearance.
Now led by jitterbug point guard John Wall and Brazilian big man Nene, the Wizards are hoping this current run can take the franchise down a similar path.
“I wasn’t here the whole time, so don’t point the finger at me,” joked Coach Randy Wittman, who was in his second season as a shooting guard with the Hawks in 1984.
In the past two 82-game seasons, the Wizards won a total of six games in November, and they appeared headed toward another season of misery after opening this year 2-7.
Then came a grueling stretch of the season with eight games in 12 days that was sure to test the Wizards physically and mentally. The experience could’ve broken them, but it actually emboldened them. They have won six of those games and made a steady climb up the weak Eastern Conference.
“We knew we were better than our record showed,” Martell Webster said after scoring 19 points. “There were some hardships and some tough battles in practice because of that. Because we knew we were capable of winning all the games that we lost and that we should be one of the top teams in the East.”
Wall continued his run of quality play as he recorded his seventh double-double of the season with a game-high 26 points and 12 assists, and the Wizards extended their home winning streak to four. They also improved to 4-1 on the second end of back-to-back games this season, refusing to let an embarrassing 20-point loss the night before in Indiana to linger. The Wizards are also 3-1 since losing Bradley Beal to a stress injury in his right fibula, but his absence has brought out some inspired performance from interchangeable wing players Trevor Ariza and Webster. Both players made five three-pointers Saturday, with Ariza scoring 24 points.
“If you take Brad or anybody out of the situation, I feel like if we play like we’re supposed to, we’re playing defense and moving the ball as a team and not having those turnovers, we can find a way of winning games,” Wall said. “We feel confident with anybody we play against.”
Nene has been one of the most indispensable Wizards since arriving from Denver at the trade deadline in March 2012. He returned to the starting lineup after sitting out the previous game with soreness in his right Achilles’ tendon and had his second double-double of the season with 13 points and a season-high 12 rebounds. The Wizards improved to 8-6 with Nene in the lineup.
“Fifty percent of Nene is sometimes more than other guys on the team,” Marcin Gortat said. “He’s a great player. He fight every possession. He was mad because he played with injury. He played hurt out there and quite honestly, you can only imagine if he was 100 percent today. We would not win this game without him.”
In the third quarter Saturday, Wall found Nene for a beautiful alley-oop, then Nene made a spot-up jumper to give the Wizards a 66-48 lead and force Hawks Coach Mike Budenholzer to call a timeout. The Wizards held a seemingly comfortable cushion, but no lead is safe against a scrappy Hawks team that came back from a 17-point deficit the night before to defeat Dallas.
Still, the Wizards started to relax and the Hawks scored 11 straight points, getting to within 66-59 when former Wizards second-round pick Shelvin Mack stole a pass from Ariza and darted up the floor for a layup. Wall made a three-pointer, but the Hawks would keep charging, getting within six points when Mack made a floater. Paul Millsap later connected on a three-pointer to bring the Hawks within 72-68 and make the crowd antsy.
Millsap led the Hawks with 23 points and 10 rebounds and made another ridiculous three-pointer early in the fourth quarter to cut the deficit to just two points before the Wizards made the plays to finish out the game.
“I think it’s real big for us,” Ariza said. “They went on a run at the end of the game, and that was our time to step up. If we didn’t make any stops, who knows, we’d probably still be playing. We have the take the challenge. We are showing growth. We are showing maturity.”
When told about the team having its first eight-win November in 29 years, Ariza paused and chuckled. “That’s tough,” he said. “That’s definitely tough. I’m glad that we can change those stats this year and try to improve on them.”