This season has been filled with more eyesores than eye-openers, more head scratching than head nodding and more grief than glory. But there was little to find wrong with the Wizards on Friday, when they turned what was set up to be an April Fool’s joke of a game against the equally lowly Cleveland Cavaliers into a truly historic night.
Think about how bad this game looked on paper: John Wall was suspended, taking away the excitement of seeing him play. Antawn Jamison is out for the season with a broken left pinkie finger, taking away the excitement of a possible reunion. And both teams entered the game with a combined 115 losses.
Jordan Crawford hadn’t started at point guard since his freshman season at Indiana, and rarely played the position since leaving Hargrave Military Academy. Andray Blatche was put back in the starting lineup, possibly a little earlier than planned, because the Wizards were going to need some offense without Wall. And, Othyus Jeffers was given his first NBA career start after spending most of this season with the Iowa Energy of the Development League.
In spite of all that, Crawford finished with his first career triple-double – 21points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds — as the Wizards became the first team in NBA history with two rookies to accomplish that feat in the same season. With JaVale McGee’s controversial triple-double two weeks ago in the Chicago, the Wizards became the first team in seven years to have three different players mess around and get triple doubles in the same season.
The last team? The 2003-04 Los Angeles Lakers, who went on to win the Western Conference. The last trio? Kobe Bryant, Gary Payton and Karl Malone.
And what about Blatche? Maligned for most of the season, he had a night that almost put Kevin Love to shame. In his second game since missing the previous 11 with a sprained right shoulder, Blatche fought for a career-high 19 rebounds, including a franchise-record 16 on the offensive glass. He also matched his career-high with 36 points, offering a reminder — even if it was just one game — of why the Wizards lavished him with a huge extension last September.
Coach Flip Saunders credited Blatche’s career night on playing alongside fierce competitors, such as Crawford, Jeffers and Maurice Evans. “Dray’s caught a lot of criticism from people that he doesn’t play hard,” Saunders said. “But I think when you are playing with three guys that, they almost force you to play at a higher level. I think Dray’s come back, in two games, he’s probably had his two — he’s probably worked as hard and done more fundamental things these last two games maybe since he’s been here, how hard he’s played.”
Blatche said the game felt like one from his breakout 32-game stint last season, in which he averaged 22.1 points and 8.3 rebounds. “That’s impressive, man. I just went out there and competed. I just tried to be aggressive and hit the boards and try to get this win,” Blatche said. “Now it’s going to be a little tougher. Guys are going to be keying on me, but I’m still going to attack the rebounds and still try to do the things I did.”
McGee also had an impressive line — 25 points, 8 rebounds and 3 blocked shots — and won his duel with the athletic Ryan Hollins, who snuffed out Heat all-star forward Chris Bosh earlier this week. “Having played with JaVale before,” said Ramon Sessions, McGee’s former teammate at Nevada, “I remember when he stepped out on campus with young, raw talent, and I knew he had the potential to be a lead center in the league. He has really been growing throughout the seasons and a guy with his size you really can’t ask for more than he is doing.”
For the most part, McGee stayed within himself — although he did have one wild ride trying to lead a one-on-five break with a full-court dribble — but for the most part, he showed an ability to create and finish in the low block. He made 11 of 15 shots and could’ve reached a new career-high had he made all of his seven free throw attempts. “What’s happened here over the last three, four weeks, a month is that even when Dray went out, he became more of a focal point of our offense,” Saunders said of McGee. “As I told him, you’re going to get touches, try not to do too many crazy things. He’s going to always have one or two, but try to be a little bit more patient with the ball. That’s why he’s getting to the free throw line, making that jump hook, counter move.”
After the game, McGee was in a jovial mood as he joked with Mustafa Shakur, who limped around the locker room with an ice pack strapped to his right ankle. “What you do,” McGee asked, ”trip over some bacon?”
Jeffers played well for the second game in a row, scoring 13 points and playing harassing defense. He also had a nifty juke move on Hollins, using a ball fake -- “I told he brought back the Julius Erving one handed pump fake,” Saunders said -- to get Hollins off his feet, then leaned under him to get a layup and a foul. Before stepping to the line to make the free throw, Jeffers flexed for the crowd.
“I been doing it in the D-League for a couple of years,” Jeffers said. It’s kind of like a pet move of mine, but nobody know it up here, why not do it? Why not have fun while I’m here? I’m not doing nothing that I’m not supposed to be doing. I’m supposed to working hard. I’m trying to make it here.”
And finally, Crawford is playing like someone who is trying desperately to prove that he belongs. Sitting on the bench in Atlanta may have been frustrating, but it certainly created a hunger and low tolerance for losing. After scoring a career-high 39 points in the loss to Miami, Crawford turned around the game against Cleveland, as he sparked a 14-0 third-quarter run by handing out two assists -- including a pretty between-the-legs drop-off for Blatche -- and added a three-point play.
“I seen Dray trailing me and I wanted to get it to him any way that I can,” Crawford said. “I just wanted to make sure we played a team game. Dray back, so we had another low post scorer. I didn’t feel I had to do that much. I just wanted to get the team involved and pick my spots.”
The most remarkable aspect of his triple double was that he got stronger as the game progressed, grabbing nine rebounds and handing out seven assists in the second half. Crawford let the NBA know that it may have made a mistake by not allowing him to share Eastern Conference rookie of the month honors with Wall. He has been that good in recent weeks. Crawford, though, is more concerned about winning games.
“It feels good every time to win,” Crawford said. “I hope we can get a couple more. We’ve got a couple of winnable games ahead. I’m trying to win them all.”
After the game, Crawford had to head to the training room to have an ice pack applied to his ailing back. “I think the personalities of some of the guys we have right now, Mo Evans, great competitor. Jordan is a great competitor. The guys that we’re bringing in, O, the guys that we’ve brought in with trades, they’re the kind of players that you want to go out there because you know they’re going to fight tooth and nail to the end, and they’ll make other guys that are talented guys play above their level.”
The win could easily be dismissed as a meaningless April game against a terrible team, but Saunders chose to view it as growth for a team that has more difficult days than delightful ones. “We’ve gone through a lot of growing pains this year. I think [Wizards owner Ted Leonsis] said it best, a lot of times, in his blog, ‘It’s painful at times to watch.’ But what will happen is if you keep on working with players, those mistakes that we saw become fewer and farther between. We’re starting to see that with some of our guys. It’s tough to be patient at times,” Saunders said. “It’s frustrating, but no matter what happens, the next day we come to practice and our guys have a good attitude, and they come with a workmanlike attitude and I give credit to our assistant coaches because they’re out there to work with the guys. We haven’t stopped no matter what as far as our individual development with these players, working with them individually, playing three-on-three basketball. And we’re starting to see the results. Would we have liked to have seen them earlier? Yeah.”
Never too late.