Flip Saunders recently lamented how losing has affected him to the point that his diet of late has consisted of only eating at the Subway just steps away from his condo in the District because he felt sorry for himself. But after the Wizards delivered arguably his most gratifying victory since taking over as coach nearly three years ago, Saunders said the moment required something special.
You know what that meant? Potbelly!
Seriously, Saunders had several reasons to eat at any of the finer — and more expensive — culinary spots in the area. And he had earned it, after making the right moves and finding the right ways to motivate his demoralized players to stop feeling pitiful and lift up one another.
John Wall caught his first alley-oop of the season and took two charges on Kevin Durant, Nick Young buried three-pointers and forced Kevin Durant to shoot an airball, Andray Blatche made an incredible three-pointer and Jan Vesely proved that he is not overwhelmed by this stage. But the day before, Saunders had brought in a Marine to speak to the players for about 40 minutes about the value of being unified and supportive.
Saunders realized the message had sunk in as Roger Mason continued to encourage Blatche to keep playing hard, even as his home fans booed simply for existing, and teammates came to support JaVale McGee after he missed four consecutive free throws in the fourth quarter.
“When you get somebody that’s slumping, it’s your responsibility to help lift that guy up. If you don’t lift him up, he’ll destroy the team. When I saw that happen, that reminded me of what we talked about.”
Wall and Young were the obvious stars of the night, as they combined to outscore all-stars Durant and Russell Westbrook 19-16 in the fourth quarter, as the Wizards pulled off the improbable upset. But the performances of Blatche, rookie Jan Vesely and Jordan Crawford also played a critical role in the Wizards recording the victory.
Blatche has had a difficult season and the fans have obviously fully turned on him, to the point that the jeers he receives are intense and obvious. The boos he received in the first quarter had him so shaken that he second-guessed himself as he took shots and was begging to get substituted.
“I give him credit, because he played through it,” Saunders said. “Since he’s come back from his injury, he’s trying to play the right way. He’s played with a good amount of energy. He’s played team basketball. I think as a team, we’re playing team basketball.
Blatche is limited and hasn’t always had the best work ethic, which has led to fan angst, but since injuring his right shoulder and getting benched — which happened simultaneously or it didn’t — he actually has been playing harder. He had 12 points and 10 rebounds against the Thunder and has snagged 30 rebounds in his past three games.
Blatche also got physical and got in the face of the eternally scowling Kendrick Perkins, refusing to back down. But Blatche was focused more on the three-pointer he hit near the end of the third quarter that brought the Wizards within 76-72 and showing the Thunder that they weren’t going away.
“Not to pat myself on my shoulder or back. I think the three-pointer boosted us up a little bit for the third quarter,” Blatche said with a laugh. “I tried to keep my head, to stay in the game, but I was just helping my teammates. Most important thing, we won.”
Vesely also had another solid night off the bench, as he scored six points and grabbed three rebounds. The Wizards outscored the Thunder by seven points when he was on the floor, as he fought for rebounds, kept plays alive and provided some energy and activity on both ends.
“Jan was great,” Saunders said. “Great amount of energy, getting to the point now where he’s one of our better bigs in pick-and-roll defense. he’s pretty much learning on the fly, so you can see his basketball intelligence. Picks things up really quick. He knows how to play. He’s one of those guys that gets out there, puts his hands on a lot of balls, keeps balls alive. We had a lot of young guys out there playing, and they played with no fear.”
Vesely didn’t get overly excited about the performance or that the Wizards had beaten the team with the league’s best record. He isn’t some ordinary rookie, having played at the highest levels in Europe and Serbia since he was a teenager. “I mean, I play like this three years in Partizan,” he said. “I try to do my best on the court and leave everything on the court. I continue to do that here. I try to do what I do and concentrate.”
Crawford scored 10 of his 18 points in the second period, when an upset started to become a possibility. He had eight in the final period, converting 5 of 6 from the foul line. Afterward, Crawford credited the motivational speaker for helping the team play more inspired, but he added that there was extra motivation as the players stepped on the floor.
“They played some Tupac before the game,” Crawford said with a laugh.