Fear of embarrassment can be huge motivator, and the Washington Wizards were moving closer to matching the 1990-91 Sacramento Kings for the worst road record in NBA history at 1-40. So after they escaped Salt Lake City on Monday with a 100-95 overtime victory over the Utah Jazz, the Wizards experienced a mix of relief, survival and excitement.
“It was a great win,” John Wall said. “We just want to keep winning.”
They ended their longest road trip of the season on a high note, but the celebration was muted — some hooting, hand clapping and high-fiving, but nothing over the top after the Wizards got their second road win of the season. The flight back to Washington was all the more rewarding because they didn’t return empty-handed. Over the course of five games, the Wizards endured two blowout losses, two overtimes and one victory that came after the already short-handed team lost two more key players to injury.
“To come in here on a back-to-back, having five of your top seven guys out, that’s a helluva win for these guys,” Coach Flip Saunders said, as the Wizards beat the Jazz despite the absences of Andray Blatche, Rashard Lewis, Josh Howard, who didn’t travel with the team, and Nick Young and Trevor Booker, who both suffered injuries on the trip .
The Wizards (18-55) were bad before the injuries, but being short-handed places them in the unenviable position of having to play a near flawless game just to be competitive. They will face a similar challenge on Wednesday, as they welcome LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and the Miami Heat to Verizon Center for the second time. The Heat snuck out of town with a 95-94 win on Dec. 18 — the day Gilbert Arenas was traded to Orlando — as the Wizards blew a five-point lead with 30 seconds remaining.
But Saunders has been encouraged by how his team has responded most nights, no matter the disparity in talent. Even if the Wizards had come back from their road trip without a win, there were encouraging signs, such as the improved play of JaVale McGee, who has grabbed 61 rebounds in his past four games and became the first Washington player since Moses Malone in 1986 to have a game with at least 28 points, 18 rebounds and five blocked shots,as McGee did on Sunday against Golden State.
In an overtime loss to the Los Angeles Clippers, Wall and Jordan Crawford became the first rookies to ever have at least 25 points and 10 assists in the same game. The duo combined for 53 points against the Jazz, with Crawford making a clutch basket with 4.4 seconds remaining to force overtime.
“We’re really resilient,” McGee said. “A lot of people are appreciative of the minutes they’re getting because of injuries and some people aren’t appreciative of the minutes they get until they get injured. We all out here working hard, trying to take advantage. The rookies definitely stepped up, but I don’t consider them rookies anymore. It’s the second half of the season, I feel like they’re damn near vets.”
Wall has been frustrated at times with the Wizards’ inability to keep the same level of intensity each game and refuses to use any shortcomings as an excuse. “If we just be competitive every night, we’ll give ourselves a chance to win some games,” Wall said. “Usually we play good one night and get blown out the next for not playing hard and competing. We was competitive the whole night [against Utah]. We held strong.”
With all that worked against the Wizards, Saunders was pleased with how his team performed. “I think, it was successful, considering we were 1-30-whatever on the road and we got a win and we were competitive,” Saunders said. “It was a great opportunity for our young guys to go on the road and play in some close games. Great way to end it.”