NEW ORLEANS — At this rate, the Washington Wizards might want to avoid sleeping in their own beds the night before a game for the rest of the season — or at least the near future. The Wizards are enjoying life on the road, away from the distractions and demands; and where they can sleep on plush hotel pillows, take in the convenience of room service and experience what it feels like to actually win a basketball game.
In their first game against the franchise formerly known as the Hornets, the Wizards had a harder-than-necessary, 102-96 victory over the New Orleans Pelicans and have now won six of their past seven road games. The Wizards are 9-9 on the road, at an unusual time in which they have also lost six of seven at home.
“I don’t buy into home and road,” Coach Randy Wittman said. “It’s 94 feet out there, the goals are 10 feet tall. We’re playing well on the road right now, there is no question about that, but I just worry that the guys understand how we’ve got to play. Not the result. How is it that we’ve got that result?”
The Wizards (16-17) were successful by incorporating a similar formula against a mediocre opponent — sharing the ball on offense and playing with intensity on defense — and showed maturity and poise down the stretch after watching a 23-point lead get whittled down to six points with less than three minutes remaining.
Playing his first game in New Orleans since he was traded to the Wizards in June 2012, Trevor Ariza scored a team-high 21 points, including a huge three-pointer that quelled the Pelicans’ run, and grabbed 10 rebounds to help his team win its second straight game and improve to 6-2 on the second end of back-to-back games. In the 18 months since he last played a game in New Orleans, Ariza has seen the franchise he represented for two seasons change its nickname, colors and uniforms — but he didn’t see a huge difference.
“It’s the same people over there. It’s the same team,” Ariza said with a smile. “No hard feelings. I’m just glad we came out here and we won, did what we were supposed to do.”
Washington led, 91-70, when Jan Vesely caught a lob pass from Garrett Temple and threw down a dunk. John Wall hopped out of his seat, high-fived Vesely and cursed in excitement.
“I think we got way too comfortable. We got lackadaisical. We thought they were going to quit,” Bradley Beal said after scoring 17 points. “And they didn’t.”
With a group of mostly reserves and Anthony Davis (21 points, three blocks), the Pelicans scored 10 straight points as Wittman said the Wizards’ offense “got sloppy.” Marcin Gortat (11 points, 14 rebounds) made a tip-in to give the Wizards a 13-point lead, but Wall fouled backup point guard Brian Roberts on a made three-pointer and the lead was just nine when Roberts made the free throw. Beal then fouled Austin Rivers, and he converted a three-point play that brought the Pelicans (15-19) within 93-87 with 2 minutes 56 seconds remaining.
Ariza answered with a three-pointer in front of the Pelicans’ bench and the Wizards closed out the game from the foul line. Ariza missed the team's lone road game against the then-Hornets last season while nursing a strained left hamstring, but the return proved to be exactly what he needed to get some shots to fall again. He had failed to score in double figures in his previous four games but connected on 9 of 17 from the field on this night.
“It feels good to come back here and play well. The city was good to me when I played here,” said Ariza, who spent two seasons with the Hornets. “But more so, I’m just happy to get out of the funk that I’m in. That’s the bigger thing.”
Wall had 20 points and six assists but made his most critical play on the defensive end late in the game, when the Wizards were up seven and still in desperate need of a stop. Wall dove to the ground to steal the ball from Roberts and alertly called a timeout. His teammates crowded over him, all trying to help him up off the ground. When Wall finally got up on his feet, they slapped him on the head and patted him on the back.
“We made the game tougher than it had to be,” Wall said. “I just knew it was big play and I knew if I dived on it, I just wanted to call a timeout before I got a jump ball. I just felt hands hitting me and grabbing and picking me up, like I won a fight or something.”
Beal scored just four points in the first half, but he scored 11 points in the third quarter when the Wizards built a seemingly comfortable 77-54 lead.
Vesely scored a season-high 12 points, with 10 coming during a dominant second quarter in which the Wizards outscored the Pelicans, 33-16, and built up a lead in which they never relinquished. The 7-foot forward from the Czech Republic created havoc on both ends of the floor and Wall rewarded his hustle in the second period, when he crossed half court, jumped off one leg and threw up a lob to Vesely that Vesely threw down with two hands to give the Wizards a 49-34 lead.
“I think the whole team played with the big energy,” Vesely said. “I think everybody had fun. When you’re winning, you have fun.”
Lately, the fun is only happening in other team’s buildings. “I can’t tell you what it is,” Martell Webster said. “But if I had to pick or choose, if you’re going be successful one way or another, you’ve got to take what you’ve got. I’d rather us do that than not win at all.”