In the closing moments of the best scoring night of John Wall’s NBA career, fans began the procession to the exits.
Wall could not keep them in their seats on Tuesday. And though he tried, Wall could not alone beat the Orlando Magic. Despite Wall’s career-best 52 points, the Washington Wizards spoiled the moment with a defensive dud in their 124-116 loss.
Wall made 18 of 31 shots, including five from the three-point arc and 11 free throws — and yet the Wizards still fell to 7-13. His teammates, much like the announced crowd of 12,116 at Verizon Center, also made quick exits. After the loss, players dressed then disappeared while Wall, wrapped in towels after his shower, stood alone in an empty locker room.
Wall became the latest solo act to score 50 or more points in a loss (New Orleans Pelicans forward Anthony Davis had 50 in a season-opening loss to Denver).
“We didn’t come out with our defensive intensity,” Wall said. “They were the more aggressive team and that’s why they got out to a great start.”
Orlando (10-12), concluding a five-game road trip, had ranked second to last in the league in points per game before its long journey away from home. But the defensive-minded Magic discovered a shooting stroke against a defenseless Wizards team.
Their pop-a-shot star: Elfrid Payton, a former lottery pick who now plays as the Magic’s backup point guard but performed like a starter against the Wizards. Payton started the game by making his first nine shots from the field and finished with a career-best 25 points.
In a strange twist, 25 outweighed 52. Unlike Wall’s, Payton’s teammates had his back, protecting his output by showing effort on both ends. In addition to a strong offensive performance, Orlando played tormentor on defense. Forward Serge Ibaka swatted four shots while center Bismack Biyombo blocked another three and finished with 14 points and 13 rebounds. As a team, the Magic collected 13 blocked shots.
“We want to be the best defensive team in the league,” Orlando Coach Frank Vogel said. “I wasn’t really happy with giving John Wall 52 points and allowing them to score 116, but he’s a great player.”
The Wizards held their last lead early in the second quarter. However after the 7:55 mark, when Jason Smith knocked down an open midrange jumper to give Washington the 37-36 advantage, the team reverted to bad habits.
A string of missed shots affected the other end, as Orlando erased Washington’s lead with a 13-2 run in less than two minutes. Players settled for hacking and pushing instead of defending. But at least the fouls proved that the Wizards had registered a pulse. Other times, they just watched the ball — like during the Magic’s first possession of the fourth quarter when no one paid attention to the backdoor cut from Jodie Meeks.
For the game, Orlando shot 52 percent and made 12 of 26 from the three-point arc, led by the point guard with the funky hair.
Payton entered the game after the five-minute mark of the opening quarter, immediately torching the Wizards for eight straight points on three jump shots. Most notable about Payton’s night: He did not just take easy shots. Though he lit up Washington’s interior defense for several layups, Payton also played around-the-world — hitting a trio of three-pointers from the left corner, right corner and top of the arc as the Wizards sagged off of him.
Washington couldn’t track him on the perimeter, and by the second quarter the defense couldn’t stop him from getting inside.
Payton capped the 13-2 run by driving past Trey Burke and into the void of the Wizards’ paint. Burke shoved Payton, creating a three-point play, then yelled in the direction of Smith.
When Payton wasn’t frustrating the Wizards, he was sharing the ball. After his bucket and foul, Payton found Jeff Green cutting the baseline and a latereacting Bradley Beal had to foul. While stumbling through the second quarter, Washington committed nine fouls and sent Orlando to the line for 12 free throw attempts. During that frame, the Wizards surrendered 40 points.
“It’s unacceptable,” Coach Scott Brooks said of the second-quarter defense. “This team is a very physical team. They play very good defense, but they don’t score the ball a lot. Ninety something points a game — and they scored 40 points in one quarter.
“You have to have the urgency, you have to have that in order to give yourself the best chance to get a stop,” Brooks continued, “and tonight [that] was not the case.”
In the third quarter, with the Wizards down by double figures, Wall carried the burden by scoring 15 of his team’s 29 points. In spite of Wall’s efforts, Orlando still climbed to a 20-point lead.
It seemed that every time Wall made a play, the Wizards’ defense erased the progress. In the fourth quarter when Wall finished through a foul by Biyombo and scored his 48th point, the Wizards trailed 115-107 with less than four minutes remaining. But on the next play, Biyombo tipped in a rare miss by Payton as Orlando cushioned its lead and added an asterisk to Wall’s big night.
Fifty-two points, and yet a loss.
“Offensively, [when you score] 116 points on your home floor you should win that,” Brooks said.