John Wall stepped into the role Thursday night as the Washington Wizards‘ chief rim protector. He chased down unsuspecting players on the Los Angeles Lakers roster, each one believing he had a clear path to the basket, and swatted their shots with a certain malice. Every time the ball emphatically spiked to the floor, Capital One Arena responded with a roar.
Wall’s blocks excited the fans and created memorable moments. The highlights also represented a concerted defensive effort in the Wizards’ 111-95 win over the Lakers.
The Wizards constructed a 21-point lead by the third quarter on the strength of defense, holding the Lakers to 36.5 percent shooting and just three makes from the three-point line. While the lead shriveled to nine points in the fourth quarter, balance on both ends of the floor carried the Wizards (6-5) to the win.
Wall led four starters in double figures with a game-high 23 points. He notched just five assists, but pulled down eight rebounds and recorded a pair of steals and three monstrous blocks.
“He’s first team all-defender, man,” Markieff Morris said of his teammate. “Like he said, he’s the best shot-blocking point guard in the history of basketball. I believe it. I see it every game. Got to be top five in blocks.”
Wall threw down a left-handed slam against Lakers center Brook Lopez despite his sore left shoulder that caused him to miss Sunday’s game in Toronto.
“It’s my testimony that says it’s cool,” Wall said of the dunk.
With the same ferociousness, he sent back the attempts by Jordan Clarkson, Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma. Missing from that list: Lakers rookie point guard Lonzo Ball. But it’s not as if Wall cared to promote a “Wall versus Ball: Part II.”
With the Lakers in town, the bait came early. During his Thursday afternoon news conference, the first question Wall heard focused on Ball, the lightning rod at the center of endless discussion and exhausting coverage. While the inquiry attempted to pit him against the young phenom, Wall chose not to create a juicy sound bite.
“We’re just trying to go out there and get a win,” Wall emphasized. “We haven’t been playing well. We haven’t been playing defense this season.”
The lead-up this game did not provide nearly half the fun of the first event. There was no new LaVar Ball comment to get fired up about, a couple weeks after the outspoken family patriarch said the Wizards “better beware” ahead of the Oct. 25 game in Los Angeles. That initial comment stoked Wizards center Marcin Gortat to tweet that Wall “will torture [Lonzo] for 48 minutes” followed by a pledge from Wall himself to show “no mercy” to the 19-year-old rookie. This week, however, both sides were subdued, as LaVar Ball is dealing with his son LiAngelo’s arrest in China for allegedly shoplifting and the Wizards are reeling from recent humbling losses to bottom-feeding teams such as the Dallas Mavericks, Phoenix Suns and the Lakers.
How quickly things can change.
Last week, ahead of a nationally televised matchup with the Cleveland Cavaliers, Wall and Bradley Beal took turns telling ESPN’s Rachel Nichols how the Wizards were the best team in the East and that the Cavaliers dodged them in the playoff seedings last season. LeBron James had the last word by scoring 57 points in the Cavs’ Nov. 3 win in Washington.
Although Gortat’s advice earlier this week for Washington to “become a more humble team” may not agree with Wall — “I don’t think we need to calm down talking too confidently,” he said Thursday, blaming the increased media attention around the first Lakers-Wizards game on the center’s tweet — the recent losses have gotten the team’s attention.
After a business-as-usual start Thursday when the Wizards gave up 34 points in the first quarter, the defense vastly improved in the second. The Lakers’ shooting dropped by 12 percentage points, and their prowess in the paint declined from 24 points in the first quarter to just 10 for the rest of the half.
“We stopped giving layups,” Coach Scott Brooks said of the defense after the first quarter. “We kind of got a hold of that in the second quarter, I think we only gave up four layups.”
Otto Porter Jr., who played the entire first quarter and scored 12 points, remained on the floor to energize the second unit and the rotation helped Washington take control.
Porter scored 20 points and added 11 rebounds while Beal balanced 22 points with five assists. And in his best game since returning from surgery, Morris shot efficiently (6 of 7) for 16 points.
Morris watched the Oct. 25 loss from the sideline while working his way back from surgery, and saw the early fissures forming in Washington’s season. He watched his teammates blow a 10-point lead with less than seven minutes to play, a trend that has continued. More alarming, even after Morris returned to the lineup to complete the roster, the Wizards have failed to commit on defense. Over the past three home games, the team has allowed huge scoring nights from opposing players and surrendered at least 113 points in each loss.
Brooks hasn’t waited for his guys to snap out of it. Though Brooks has governed with a light touch at times this season — the team played Wiffle ball during a practice in Los Angeles and later experienced Australian Rules Football in Washington — he has taken a more aggressive tone behind closed doors.
“Coach came into the locker room the other day and got on a couple players’ [tails]. Me too,” Morris said, explaining that the focus of Brooks’s ire was “the top guys, the guys that need the accountability to show that nobody’s better than anybody, we’re all a team together.”
Following the win, Morris acknowledged how the Wizards’ offense impacts its effort on the other end but in this case, the harmony led the team to one of its better defensive performances in allowing just 39 points through the second half.
“When we play the right way, our defense clicks,” Morris said. “And tonight it showed. The ball spread around, a couple different guys scored in a double figures and we got the win. And defensively, we held them to under 100 points.”