The drought began as the Washington Wizards tried to squeeze out one final run with Gilbert Arenas, Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler and continued through an embarrassing fall and a painful rebuild around John Wall. It had become such a nagging obstacle this season that players tried to avoid the question and Marcin Gortat openly wondered whether a “curse” was holding them back.
But after all of that misery and frustration, a moment more than four years in the making arrived Monday at Verizon Center, where Wall gleefully dribbled around in a circle and pumped his fist as the closing seconds wound down and a sparse crowd stood to applaud a 100-90 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers.
The Wizards (24-23) have a winning record for the first time since Oct. 31, 2009 , and are above .500 this late in the season for the first time since the 2007-08 season — the last time the franchise reached the playoffs. Wall scored a team-high 22 points and heard “MVP!” chants as he made the final free throws of the game.
“It’s a humbling experience,” said Wall, the longest-tenured player on the team along with Trevor Booker and Kevin Seraphin. “It’s only one game over, but yeah, it’s a big relief. We’ve got bigger goals to try to keep winning games and try to not to go back down so we won’t have to have this talk again.”
With the win, Wall avoided a record he had no interest in owning. It took him until his 231st game, but he finally is on a team with a winning record. Joe Smith is the only No. 1 overall pick to play more games (241) to start his career without going above .500.
The Trail Blazers (34-14) came to Washington as the NBA’s highest-scoring team, but the Wizards have made a habit in recent weeks of shutting down some of the league's most explosive offenses. They held Phoenix to 95 points, Golden State to 85 and Oklahoma City to a season-low 81. Those teams all average more than 100 points per game.
“We’re playing for each other, rotating for each other and just wanting to win, the flat-out will to want to win,” Trevor Ariza said after scoring 20 points. “You’ve got to play defense. You got to help each other out. You got to fly around and get stops, and that’s what we’ve been doing.”
The Wizards held the Trail Blazers to 14 points in the third period, when the visitors had more turnovers (seven) than field goals (six). Portland forward Nicolas Batum made a driving layup to bring his team within 74-69 with 4 minutes 16 seconds left in the period. But Gortat hit a fadeaway jumper and Wall threw down a two-hand dunk to start a Wizards run of 12 consecutive points.
With Booker out for personal reasons, Seraphin was given a chance. The 6-foot-10 center from French Guiana provided instant offense for the Wizards, scoring 19 points off the bench. Seraphin, who has played sparingly in recent weeks, finished the run bridging the third and fourth quarters with eight straight points to give the Wizards an 86-69 lead.
“It feels great. Everything we’ve been through, we’ve had a lot of losing and stuff like that. Now we start winning and start to really be a really great team. This winning feeling is great,” Seraphin said. “When I knew [Booker] was out, I was like, ‘This is your opportunity. Be ready.’ ”
Portland cut the lead to six with 1:12 left, but Bradley Beal (team-high six assists) found Nene for an 18-foot jumper that brought a huge smile to Nene’s face and relief to his teammates. The Wizards were never in serious danger on a night in which they protected the ball better than they have all season, finishing with just six turnovers while forcing Portland into 16 miscues that led to 17 points.
“We can’t just get stuck on .500,” Nene said. “When you dream, you need to dream big. Believe in ourselves and our team and how capable we are, the good things we can do, and if we get stuck on .500, that’s a small thing.”
Washington has won four of its past six games, with all of the wins against some of the best teams in the Western Conference. It has another tough Western foe on the way, with the defending conference champion San Antonio Spurs coming to town Wednesday.
The Wizards have won three straight games over the Trail Blazers, who have helped Washington overcome some ignominious marks in the past two seasons. Portland was responsible for the Wizards’ first win after 12 losses to open last season.
Beal had a difficult shooting night, needing 16 shots to score 13 points, and had a ferocious dunk in the third quarter that captured the frustration of his night — and the Wizards’ season-long pursuit — when he darted up the floor for a two-handed dunk and swung so high on the rim that his right leg hit the padding at the bottom of the basket.
“That was a hurry-up-and-dunk,” Beal said. “I had four red and black jerseys trailing up behind, so I had to get it in the hoop somehow. I was just trying not to fall. So I just held on for dear life.”
Coach Randy Wittman said “fairy dust” wasn’t going to fall from the sky when the team finally got over the hump, but it was evident the struggles had started to become a burden. The Wizards needed eight chances and had blown several opportunities at home, losing to some of the league's dregs, such as Milwaukee and Boston, in games that could’ve ended their misery.
“It’s great that we’re 24-23, but I don’t want them to focus on a number,” said Wittman, who is above .500 himself for the first time since he led the Minnesota Timberwolves to a 1-0 record Oct. 29, 2008. “I want them to focus on the act of why we’re 24-23. That’s where you keep it going. That’s where you get on a run. I want this team to get on a run. They’ve never been on a run where we run off games. That’s when you really take off. That’s what I want.”