CHARLOTTE — Before every game, Washington Wizards assistant coach Don Zierden takes the locker room floor and addresses the team. Typically, Zierden goes through the opponent's personnel as film is displayed and concludes his presentation with a message. Sometimes he highlights keys to a victory. Sometimes he demonstrates why the upcoming game is important. Sometimes he presents bulletin board material.
On Monday evening, minutes before the Wizards took the Time Warner Cable Arena floor to begin their satisfying 95-69 trouncing of the Charlotte Hornets, Zierdan told the players, each seated at a locker, to play for the person next to them. He told them to play for Paul Pierce, who awoke Monday morning to the news that a close friend had died. He told them a win for Ramon Sessions against his former team would be gratifying. He told them to win it for John Wall, who was back home playing in front of family and friends.
“He challenged us,” Wizards guard Garrett Temple said, “and we came out and stepped up to it.”
By the evening’s conclusion, the Wizards walked off the hardwood savoring their best victory in nearly two months. They had gone since Jan. 14 without a victory against a team that currently qualifies for the postseason and since Jan. 27 without a win of any sort on the road.
Fueled by Washington’s best defensive performance of the season, both spells ceased in convincing fashion Monday. The Hornets’ point total was the lowest the Wizards (35-28) have surrendered since 2004, their 32.5 percent shooting from the field was the lowest clip against the Wizards through 64 games this season, and the 26-point margin of victory was Washington’s largest away from the District this season.
The win ended an 11-game losing streak against playoff foes and a nine-game road skid while finally loosening the Hornets’ vice grip on the Wizards. Washington had lost five straight games to Charlotte (28-34) and 10 of 12 overall.
“It did feel like a good win,” Temple said. “A good, quality win. We owed these guys. . . . They’ve been bullying us as of late so we really wanted to get this win for a number of reasons. And I think the way we won it was big for us.”
Stifling defense, combined with a rejuvenated Wall and Marcin Gortat’s offensive prowess, jump-started the Wizards in the first quarter. Wall entered the night shooting 36.2 percent from the field in the nine games since the all-star break — a steep decline from the 46 percent clip he posted in Washington’s initial 54 games. Sprained ankles, a bruised left knee, a sore left thumb and weary legs — standard for a player who expends the amount of energy Wall does on a nightly basis — hindered him. He admittedly wasn’t the player who maltreated defenses for the season’s first three months.
The spry John Wall returned Monday. Wall utilized his blazing speed to race past defenders and his explosiveness to attack — and finish — at the rim. With family members, including his mother, watching from the fourth row behind the Wizards bench, Wall made his first five shots to total 11 of his 15 points in the first quarter.
“Coach came out and talked to me before shoot-around and told me to be aggressive,” Wall said. “So I tried to be aggressive.”
While Wall has stumbled, Gortat overcame his difficult stretch last month and arrived in North Carolina averaging 13.6 points and 13.1 rebounds over his previous eight games. Gortat continued his impressive run immediately, recording eight points in the first quarter en route to a game-high 20 points and eight rebounds. He extended his standout play to the other end, where he defended Hornets star center Al Jefferson, who was held to 14 points and five rebounds.
“Marcin has been playing great,” Coach Randy Wittman said. “I thought tonight, forget the 20 points. Al is a hard cover and when you think you have done a hell of a job, you look and he still has points in the paint. That’s one of the tougher covers for a center in the league. Marcin came out defensively and set the tone.”
Bradley Beal exited Washington’s last visit here with a toe injury at the end of the first quarter but returned Monday after missing Saturday’s loss to the Milwaukee Bucks to score 14 points on 7-for-16 shooting and reported no pain in his fibula. But not all was positive for the Wizards, who were already without Kris Humphries for the sixth straight game because of a strained left groin. Temple strained his right hamstring in the fourth quarter and limped off. He did not return and will be re-evaluated Monday.
The Hornets, who played their fifth game in eight nights, got a team-high 19 points and seven assists from Mo Williams. But the reigning Eastern Conference player of the week went just 1 for 10 from beyond the three-point line.
Washington, on the other hand, shot 51.8 percent from the floor, outscored the Hornets 54-24 in the paint, outrebounded them 49-37 and scored 20 fast-break points to Charlotte’s zero. The dominance produced the impressive win the Wizards were longing for.
“I think it should springboard us,” Temple said.