By Gene Wang
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 11, 2010; 12:06 AM
John Wall produced his most emphatic testimonial to date as the current and future centerpiece of the Washington Wizards, logging the first triple-double of his brief NBA career in a 98-91 victory over the Houston Rockets on Wednesday night before 16,665 at Verizon Center.
Wall finished with 19 points, 13 assists and 10 rebounds, and for good measure, he added six steals and had but one turnover in a performance that further validated Washington selecting him No. 1 overall in the draft. Not that Wizards brass necessarily was demanding more evidence it made the correct decision, but on night's such as this, it's clear why optimism reigns despite the team's early travails.
"It's fun to watch," Coach Flip Saunders said of his star pupil. "The thing tonight he did is that he did it very much under control. One turnover is impressive, to have as many assists as he had to just one turnover, so it does show you one, his intelligence and how coachable he is."
Wall was heavily involved in a late 10-0 run that all but sealed the outcome. With the Wizards (2-4) behind by one and a bit uneasy after ceding a double-figure lead they built in the third quarter, Wall threaded a pass to Al Thornton in transition for a layup to trigger the surge, and the Wizards never trailed again. Andray Blatche then followed Thornton's miss for a three-point buffer before Wall and Yi Jianlian combined for a steal that ignited a fast break.
First Wall stripped Luis Scola, and Yi tipped the loose ball back to his rookie teammate. Wall passed ahead to a sprinting Blatche for an easy layup that made it 90-85 with 3 minutes 33 seconds to play, and the energy in the building continued to escalate as the Wizards completed the rush on Thornton's layup with 1:02 left that punctuated Wall's near flawless outing.
Wall became the second player in NBA history to have a triple-double as well as six steals in the first six games of his career. The other player was Magic Johnson, perhaps the most accomplished point guard in basketball history, and it was appropriate the Los Angeles Lakers Hall of Famer happened to be watching courtside as a guest of Wizards majority owner Ted Leonsis. Johnson spoke with the team before the game, and judging by the results, his message came through crystal clear.
The talking-to from Johnson came just days after Saunders ended practice early because his players were not providing the effort he was seeking. Against the Rockets (1-6), they exerted fully, especially on defense. Washington limited the Rockets to 39 percent shooting, including 6 of 20 from three-point range.
"Like I said I wasn't forcing it too much tonight," Wall said. "Just finding my teammates and making the right read. Sometimes I get too excited and try to make the spectacular play instead of the simple play. Tonight I did the right thing in making the simple play."
The Wizards, who got a team-high 20 points from both Blatche and Thornton, emerged from halftime leading by seven, then expanded their advantage to 10 on a three-pointer from Blatche and a basket by Thornton courtesy of a Wall pass. But the Rockets, as they did throughout the first 24 minutes, came roaring back and cut it to 62-61 with 5:37 left in the third quarter. That stretch included a three-pointer by Kevin Martin and an up and under layin from Ishmael Smith, whose adjustment in mid-air allowed him to avoid Wall closing on the play.
Houston then took the lead, 70-69, with 2:32 to play thanks to reserve center Brad Miller's three-pointer and two foul shots by Martin. It was the first lead for the Rockets since 2-0. The Wizards closed the quarter on two Gilbert Arenas foul shots and a jumper by Yi to regain the lead briefly before Kyle Lowry's field goal made it 73-72 heading into the final period.
Yi finished with 13 points and seven rebounds in a game televised to hundreds of millions in China. The matchup of Yi against Yao Ming on Asian Heritage Night, however, didn't get a chance to materialize after Yao left in the first quarter with a left ankle injury. He did not re-enter the game after heading to the locker room with no points.
But disappointed fans soon had plenty to celebrate when the most riveting sequence of the game unfolded in the second quarter. That's when Arenas, limited to five points in 23 minutes as he heals from a sore ankle, got ahead of the pack and spotted Wall trailing. Reverting back for a moment to his point guard sensibilities, Arenas slowed his advance and waited for Wall to catch up before tossing the ball into the air with his right hand. Wall collected it one-handed as well and slammed it for a 36-25 lead with 9:11 to play in the first quarter, bringing many appreciative patrons out of their seats.
"It was great," Wall said. "We worked on a lot this week, especially after we got kicked out of practice that day and came back for the second one. It motivated us to prepare. We did exactly what Coach Flip wanted us to. We've just got to get used to keeping a lead."