Jordan Crawford was stretched out, on his belly, getting his back worked on during a break in the fourth quarter. Crawford has been playing with a sore back for more than a week, but he’s not going to stop now -- no matter how uncomfortable it may be -- with the Wizards running low on players and him finally getting the chance play significant minutes.
The final handful of games means something to Crawford and his teammates, and that was obvious as Crawford got twisted up on the sideline, or when John Wall went crashing into the stands or the scorer’s table, or Andray Blatche grabbed a career-high six steals. The Wizards have won three in a row -- and four out of five -- making a late-season run that always raises the questions about why this effort hasn’t always been there. But this time of rally is commonplace this time of year, as players with nothing to play for see the finish line and know how hard they can push themselves.
It’s easy to forget, but the Wizards had a stretch last season in late March and April when they won four out of six games -- and even got a road win against the eventual Eastern Conference champion Boston Celtics. But this time, Coach Flip Saunders is hopeful that there can be some carryover, that rookies Wall and Crawford will continue to get better and that the progress of Blatche and JaVale McGee isn’t some fool’s gold fluke.
The success late last season came with the assistance of Shaun Livingston, James Singleton and Mike Miller, three players that all got nice paydays elsewhere. This time around, Maurice Evans is the only main rotation contributor for this latest run that will be an unrestricted free agent this summer.
“Probably some of the guys that were involved with our success last year we didn’t bring back,” Saunders said. “I think the difference is a lot of these guys are going to be coming back for us. That’s a positive, and I think we’re doing it -- it’s the progress we’ve made with the guys that have been here from day one to now. The progress of John, how he’s evolving; the progress of JaVale, how he’s evolved, the maturity of Dray. I think last year, it was more of a surprise when we’d win some games. Now our guys really believe going out that they can win, they can compete, and if they play hard, they give themselves a chance.”
Wall has played at an incredibly high level in recent weeks, returning from the all-star break focused on getting better and not worrying about trying to catch Blake Griffin in the rookie-of-the-year race. He was understandably tentative when he came back from his right knee injury in late December, showing a lack of confidence in his leg. But he is slowly starting to resemble that same relentless -- some would say reckless -- player who “Dougie’d” his way into the league.
“I got my step back,” Wall said. “I’m trusting in what we’re doing.”
Wall has shown his competitive fire, picking up a few technical fouls, swinging back at Zydrunas Ilgauskas after getting tagged with a few elbows, and by his dogged pursuit of extra possession in the win over Detroit. He’s scoring more but still trying to set up his teammates, and you can tell that he has confidence in his ability to take over games, a trait that he showed early in the season and revealed again during a win over New Jersey. On Tuesday, Wall threw himself at the hoop and got knocked down several times against the Pistons, but he also realized that he had to experience a few hard falls in order to get to the foul line and help his team win. He didn’t know how many times he fell. “I’m used to it. I don’t really keep count,” Wall said of his daredevil style. “I was getting to the basket more and getting fouls drawn on them and I just kept attacking.”
Wall credited the blue-collar attitude that Evans has brought for helping the team start believing that it can win games. Evans said that as an undrafted player, he has always had to take the path of most resistance in order to hold on. He has battled on defense, hit those momentum-building (or killing) corner three-pointers and he and Crawford have their teammates believing that every game is a possible win.
“It’s been contagious. I find now that guys look to me a lot for confidence, for encouragement and just for the experience that I have,” Evans said, mentioning how he and Wall discussed and later found out how to defend the pick-and-roll between the Detroit’s Tayshaun Prince and Will Bynum. “We communicated and figured how we’re going to make adjustments to the play. That’s what we’ve been lacking, that communication. I think this team is really starting to build an identity and trying to show a lot of character.”
The presence of Evans and Crawford has had an influence on McGee and Blatche, who have been different players of late. When Blatche was out, McGee seemed to find his way out west, when Blatche was out with a shoulder injury. McGee rebounded well, kept his energy level up, and also learned to make better basketball plays. He has his occasional slip-ups, but he is also making passes he never would’ve made at the start of the season and figuring out that he can be effective by staying close to the basket.
Blatche has offered these teases before, but he has come back from injury determined to make his presence felt inside. He’s using his agility to drive to the basket, and displaying considerable effort to get rebounds. “All those guys, they’re coming, and they’re playing with good passion,” Saunders said.
It’s way too premature to refer to Wall, Blatche and Crawford as the new big three, as owner Ted Leonsis did in his latest blog post. (Let’s let the guys make a few all-star appearances or make the playoffs before handing out nicknames like that). Three wins against three teams with losing records is progress, especially for a team that has been struggling all season. Wall has the potential to be a truly great point guard, Blatche is a six-year veteran who has yet to be a major contributor to winning basketball and Crawford has no fear, but he is simply taking advantage of the biggest green light any rookie drafted late in the first round has probably ever been given.
That’s not to discredit anybody, but the Wizards still have a lot of room to get better, and need to surround Wall with better talent. So, while winning three in a row is nice, it doesn’t mean the task is close to being complete. They have two first-round picks and cap space, so things can improve, but let’s calm down and keep what’s happening now in perspective.
The Wizards don’t have much depth, with just nine healthy players, but Crawford said that the remaining players are necessarily concerned about what’s ahead next season. “We in it for right now. We still got five games left, we in it for right now, but this can definitely carry over, you can see how there’s something in the future,” Crawford said. “You a man at the end of the day. You don’t want to just go out and lose. That ain’t what nobody about. I know it ain’t what I’m about so it’s not about the future. It’s about trying to win right now.”