The Wizards appeared to be in trouble on Sunday afternoon when JaVale McGee got the ball at halfcourt and had one his dribble-happy displays, leading a head-slapping fastbreak. The unfortunate sequence concluded with a pass to Trevor Booker that was stolen and converted into an Anthony Morrow three-pointer on the other end, giving the New Jersey Nets an eight-point first quarter lead.
The Nets continued to build on the lead and were up 17 points with 83 seconds left in the first half. John Wall scored the final four points of the second period, stealing the ball from Jordan Farmar and finishing with a dunk that was fueled by frustration. Coach Flip Saunders was equally upset by the performance of his young team, which was on the verge of putting up a clunker with owner Ted Leonsis seated courtside.
“I told our guys at halftime, with a few choice words, ‘It’s a matter of playing hard.’ That’s what we have to hang out hat on,” Saunders said after the Wizards rallied back to win, 98-92, and match their greatest comeback win of the season.
The Wizards (17-51) were a completely different team in the second half, starting with a more composed McGee, who started the scoring with a putback dunk on a Yi Jianlian miss and added a finger roll that brought them within 10. McGee had eight points, three rebounds and added an assist — finding Maurice Evans cutting to the basket for a dunk — in the third period, tying the game at 66 with a layup.
“We just wanted to stay aggressive and stay positive and keep working hard and that’s what we did,” McGee said.
The run was the result of an intense and focused defensive effort in which the Wizards forced seven turnovers, limited the Nets to just 4-for-15 shooting and held them without a field goal for more than six minutes. They outscored the Nets 28-12 in the period.
“We fought off a good first half by them. It was great to see us fight like that, especially to get the lead at all in the third quarter,” said Evans, the only player in the Wizards’ nine-man rotation with more than four years of experience. “We came in, down 13 and you see we went out and responded and we won the quarter by 16. and that’s pretty impressive for a young team, because we did it with our defense and not our offense.”
They were able to get some offense, though, from McGee and Jordan Crawford, who delivered on both ends of the floor, scoring nine points, with a block and a steal. He didn’t force the issue and stayed within himself, playing a more controlled game and taking fewer ill-advised shots.
“He’s just understanding more what we’re doing. Plus, if we keep playing him 40 minutes, we’re going to wear him down eventually and he can’t run all over the place,” Saunders said with a laugh. “He was more under control in a lot of the things that he did.”
Crawford finished with 21 points, giving him a total of 73 points in three starts in place of the injured Nick Young, who has been out with a sore left knee. Crawford broke a tie and gave the Wizards a 69-66 lead when he drove inside and converted a three-point play with a left-handed finish. He later ended the period with a 20-foot jumper.
“I’m really just going with the flow of the game,” Crawford said. “I don’t really think about ‘am I in control’ or not. I just try to play the right way all the time. Once I seen we had a chance to win, I wanted to take full advantage of it.”
After the run, the Wizards then had to hold on to the victory, with Wall serving as the closer and hitting two long jumpers in the final 82 seconds. But if not for that impressive third-quarter turnaround, those heroics wouldn’t have been possible.
“Any big lead in this league is easy to come back in, especially when you’ve got a whole half left, and we just wanted to fight hard,” Wall said. “Everybody stepped up and played better defense. We helped each other. Coaches told us to really execute on the other end, and people was just trusting each other. We did a great job on both ends today.”