Wizards are head above Blazers

By Michael Lee by Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Washington Wizards gave out John Wall bobblehead dolls on Friday to the first 10,000 fans at Verizon Center. Before the game, Wall was asked about the doll and said, "I don't think it really looks like me."

Playing his second game since returning from a bruised left knee injury, Wall was back in the starting lineup and Gilbert Arenas moved to the bench for the first time in nine games. But Wall looked nothing like the electrifying playmaker he had proven to be early in his career, struggling with his shot and failing to get an assist until the third quarter. Late in the game, Coach Flip Saunders had to pull aside Wall to ask, "Are you okay?"

With their rookie engine sputtering, the Wizards trudged through a dreadful game against the Portland Trail Blazers until they figured out another way to win in an 83-79 victory.

Instead of waiting for an exciting, highlight reel alley-oop dunk, they focused on contesting shots, closing out on shooters and forcing steals. Instead of hoping for a momentum-steering three-pointer to fall, they chased down loose balls and battled for extra possessions. And, by emphasizing the little things, the Wizards ended their season-long four-game losing streak.

"It was frustrating at times, just trying to find my rhythm," Wall said after he finished with just 10 points on 3-for-13 shooting with a season-low two assists. "Main thing is, I was struggling but my teammates did a great job . . . helping us get a win."

It wasn't the prettiest basketball game, but for a team that was coming off an embarrassing 19-point loss in Toronto two nights before, the Wizards will take a win, no matter how it comes.

On Friday, Andray Blatche took on the defensive challenge to force Portland forward LaMarcus Aldridge into a difficult shooting night (16 points, 6-of-17 shooting) and still had enough energy left to score seven of his team-high 19 points in the final three minutes. Kirk Hinrich (11 points) shadowed all-star guard Brandon Roy, recorded a team-high three steals and scored five points with two assists during a game-changing 13-2 run in the third quarter that turned a 10-point deficit into a one-point game. JaVale McGee kept the Trail Blazers from getting much inside, as he blocked five shots and had his sixth double-double of the season with 13 points and 10 rebounds.

And, with Wall in an unusual funk, Arenas stepped in to play setup man, as he added a team-high six assists to go with 15 points off the bench.

"I'm sure he's disappointed in how he played," Saunders said of Wall. "But like I said, this is a man's game. There's some times when it's not your night, somebody else has got to carry you, and what you've got to do is you gotta be all in for the guy that's carrying you."

But the Wizards (6-12) won the game with a stellar and much-needed defensive performance after surrendering a season-high 127 points in Toronto. Portland shot just 33.3 percent for the game and the Wizards limited the Trail Blazers (8-11) to just 10 points in the third quarter and held them without a field goal for nearly seven minutes in the fourth.

"Go figure. We give up [127] two days ago and give up 79 today," Saunders said. "What can you say about our defense? They shoot 33 percent. That's something that we can hang our hats on."

The Wizards welcomed back Hilton Armstrong from a one-game suspension for shoving Miami's Joel Anthony and Yi Jianlian after he missed the previous nine games with a hyperextended right knee. But they also were without Nick Young, who was forced to miss his first game of the season with a bruised right thigh suffered in the first half of the previous game when Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan's knee crashed into him. Wall also seemed to be out of sorts, as he missed his first five shots and grew noticeably flustered as the game progressed.

"From my facial expressions, it looked like I wasn't into it, but I still was," Wall said. "It was just flowing through my mind, the shots I missed and the easy opportunities that we had. I think I was still playing as hard as I could, I just wasn't as effective as I usually am."

Arenas actually suggested that he come off the bench earlier this season, saying that Hinrich should not lose his starting job to make way for him. When Wall returned, Arenas said he had no problem taking a reserve role. "Right now, we're trying to search for something that works for us. Tonight it worked. We still have plenty of games left," Arenas said. "We're focused on finding a rhythm that fits us right now."

Hinrich and Arenas were able to bring back the Wizards when the team trailed 52-42 when Andre Miller made a short jumper with 6 minutes 10 seconds left in the third period. Hinrich hit a long jumper and Wall had a layup before Arenas replaced him. Arenas then hit a long jumper, Hinrich got a steal and found him for a fastbreak layup, and then hit a three-pointer. The Wizards took a 55-54 lead when Arenas blocked a shot and Hinrich found Blatche streaking down the court for a dunk.

"As I told them beforehand, especially when you're a young team, you're going to lose some games at times that maybe you should win. But the one thing you can't do is you can't not give an effort," Saunders said. "We have an obligation, to your teammates, everyone, to give everything we have, when you're on the floor.

"Our guys showed a lot of resilience being somewhat tired from going through - we've had a rough road the last week and a half."

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