A closing statement
Tuesday, January 18, 2011
John Wall skipped, flailed, kicked out his legs and lifted his arms up and down, encouraging fans at Verizon Center to get out of their seats. Wall wasn't exactly being boastful or begging for the spotlight. He simply couldn't contain his excitement after his late-game assist - no, lively, emotional reactions aren't reserved just for highlight dunks - and he wanted the fans to recognize what was happening before them.
Yes, this was the Washington Wizards avoiding a late-game meltdown and defeating the Utah Jazz, 108-101, to record their first victory over a team with a winning record and consecutive wins for the first time this season. Yes, this was Nick Young overcoming a brief silence to score 22 of his team-high 25 points in the second half, including the decisive three-pointer with 40.9 seconds remaining. Yes, this was Andray Blatche scoring 21 points, grabbing 11 rebounds, trying to take charges and chasing down Raja Bell to block a fast-break layup.
And, yes, this was also a calmer, more collected Wall, running the show and running his team - showing the lessons he had learned from lopsided outings against Derrick Rose, Steve Nash and Chris Paul - to finally hold his own against an elite point guard in Deron Williams.
"I knew it was going to be a challenge for me and a challenge for my teammates to come out with a win, but we've got a good win at home against a marquee team in the Western Conference," Wall said after scoring 19 points and handing out a career-high 15 assists. "It's good that we were able to keep our composure, make shots down the stretch."
The night before, Coach Flip Saunders sent Wall a text message telling him that he could impact the game without scoring, by simply setting up his teammates and playing with enthusiasm. "And I thought he did that and it carried on with the whole team," Saunders said of Wall, who seemed to accept the challenge early on as he was responsible for 15 of the Wizards' first 18 field goals, recording a double-double with 10 points and 10 assists in the first 18 minutes of the game.
"He's definitely one of the best point guards of the game already," said Williams, who finished with a game-high 28 points with 11 assists. "He played well tonight, picked us apart with his passing, scored what he needed to. He's going to be in his league for a long time and be one of the tough point guards for a long time."
The only downside to his stellar start was that Wall also had trouble holding on to the ball, as the Jazz simply let the rookie take out-of-control drives or make careless passes. He had six turnovers in the first half.
But Wall settled down in the second half, as he repeatedly found his teammates in their favorite spots and even put them in position to make plays when they didn't expect it. JaVale McGee (seven points, 11 rebounds) was running down the floor when Wall paused, looked away, then tossed a perfect lob to McGee, who jumped, spotted the rim with the corner of his eye and dunked the ball over his shoulder as he was fouled.
McGee's electrifying slam was the highlight of a 16-3 third-quarter run that turned a two-point game into 73-58 Wizards lead. The run started when Bell stole the ball from Wall and dribbled up the floor for what he thought was an easy layup. Blatche refused to give up on the play and slapped the ball shortly after it left Bell's hands. "Flip always say, 'It's always one play that changes the game.' And that could've been that play," Blatche said. "I messed up before where I didn't hustle back and I had to make up for it. I busted my tail, got down and got the block."
Blatche had a season-high four blocked shots and had his fourth game with at least 20 points and 10 rebounds this season. Since returning from a sprained shoulder, Blatche has grabbed 24 rebounds his past two games. He made his first five shots, and always seemed to be ready with timely baskets, but more importantly, he limited Jazz forward Paul Millsap to just 11 points on 4-of-13 shooting.
"Andray played probably one of his overall best games," Saunders said.
Young again showed that he is a player that should be taken seriously - especially at home - as the Jazz (27-14) tried to wear him down with the physical Bell and later with the long-armed Andrei Kirilenko. Young responded to the rough play by taking over when it mattered most. "This is his maturation process," Saunders said. "Now teams are coming out and saying, 'We are going to stop Nick Young.' They were physical on him and when we made some adjustments in the second half, open looks got his rhythm going."
The Wizards (12-27) led 101-91 with 3 minutes 11 seconds remaining when McGee jumped over Blatche and Jazz forward Al Jefferson (25 points, 10 rebounds) to rebound a Wall miss for an emphatic put-back jam. But the Jazz went on a 7-1 run to get within four points. Wall then rebounded a miss by Millsap, dribbled up the court to draw the defense and zipped a pass to Young in the corner for a three-pointer that gave the Wizards a 105-98 lead.
"John found me in the corner. Kind of been our thing the whole year," Young said. "Just sticking with it, never losing my confidence at any time in the game. I didn't shy away. I want the ball at the end of the game. For them to give it to me shows they've got confidence in me."
Wall had urged Saunders to be harder on him two weeks ago, asking him to keep pushing him to get better, because, "I want to be a great point guard." He even asked to receive fines whenever he starts to pout, sulk or show frustration during games.
"It ain't too much," Wall said of the fines, "but it's enough to keep my pockets empty. I don't want to lose that money."
Wall didn't have that problem on Monday afternoon as the Wizards won their fourth straight at home. He was too excited.