CLEVELAND – John Wall had watched Jan Vesely hustle for loose balls and keep so many possessions alive with offensive rebounds that he felt the need to reward the big man for his service in the fourth quarter of the Wizards’ 98-91 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers on Wednesday. Vesely ran toward Wall to set a screen at the foul line and then sprinted toward the hoop, and Wall threw a beautiful lob that Vesely threw down with two hands.
“He definitely earned that one,” Wall said of Vesely. “He got us a lot of second chances. We definitely needed those second and third opportunities.”
Vesely had another high-energy performance for the Wizards as he grabbed half of his team-best eight rebounds on the offensive glass and blocked two shots, sending one offering from No. 1 overall pick Anthony Bennett into the Wizards bench. In his past three games, Vesely is averaging 5.3 points, 7.0 rebounds, 1.7 steals and 1.0 blocks off the bench and continually making momentum-shifting plays.
“I didn’t play a couple of games in the beginning of the season and I set a goal to myself to work and be ready,” Vesely said. “When I get the chance to go on the court, play 100 percent and do my job.”
But aside from Vesely’s production and some solid defensive efforts from Garrett Temple, the Wizards’ bench has come up short for an injury-riddled team. Washington’s reserves are the least productive in the NBA, averaging just 22 points per game.
With Trevor Ariza (right hamstring) and Al Harrington (right knee) both sidelined with injuries in the past three games, Coach Randy Wittman has relied even more on his starters to play heavy minutes with the second unit struggling to maintain leads or creating larger deficits.
The team’s reserves have accounted for just 33 of the Washington’s 298 points the past three games. Against Cleveland, the Wizards’ bench players were outscored by the Cavaliers’ second unit, 56-10. Too often this season, Washington’s starters have set the table, but had to return to clean up a mess.
“The second unit has to come in and pick up where that unit left off,” said Martell Webster, who is averaging 15.3 points while starting the past three games in place of Ariza. “Even when I’m playing in the second unit, you’ve still got to come in and play the game the right way.”
Wittman had little confidence in his bench when the team was at full strength and has experimented with different lineups with uneven results. Inevitably, Wittman leans on his starting five to carry the team. Bradley Beal leads the NBA in minutes per game (40) and Wall is ninth (37.1).
“I’m going to play guys that are contributing,” Wittman said. “If the bench contributes, they play. If they don’t then we’ve got to go back to our starters. I’m not concerned about it right now. The bench has got to continue to work and play with confidence and I think Jan is playing well off the bench and Garrett has given us some good minutes. We’ve got to get things going with our bench, a little bit, no question.”
Without a regular rotation, the reserves have been unable to establish much of a rhythm through the first 11 games. Wittman has tried to stick to a nine-man rotation but the players in the mix have changed, with some not knowing if they’ll get decent minutes or if they’ll play at all.
“It’s been a little tough, because everybody doesn’t know when exactly they are going to get in, or their role,” said Temple, who has received more minutes as Wall’s backup at point guard the past three games. “The last two games, we’ve played pretty similar, but when Trev gets back, it’s going to change a little bit, obviously. We just have to worry about getting in there, contributing whatever we can, while we’re in the game. We’re not trying to think about when am I coming in, or when am I coming out, we’re just thinking about playing in the here and now.”
With the Wizards about to play six games in the next nine days, beginning on Friday in Toronto, the second unit will have to provide more assistance to keep the starters from over-exerting themselves.
“The bench always need to be ready,” Nene said, “because you never know when you’re going to be in and you may be the person that’s going to make the difference in the game. So you need to be prepared for everything.”
Vesely didn’t play in the first six games, but since replacing Kevin Seraphin as the first big man off the bench, the high-flying 7-footer from the Czech Republic has tried to seize the opportunity.
“It’s great to see him always ready,” Wall said. “You never know when your time may come and he never pouted, he never complained about it and he’s given us big minutes right now, especially at the backup four position. And we’re not asking him to do nothing out of his comfort zone. He’s coming in, cutting to the basket, catching alley-oops and playing defense.”