The loudest applause could’ve easily occurred after John Wall led a fast break and found Nene cutting to the basket for an emphatic jam in the first half, or when Nene tossed a pass over his head to Martell Webster for another jam later in the game. But the play that got Randy Wittman to clap his hands, and Wall to scream, preen and stomp came in the fourth quarter. That was when the Washington Wizards forced Chicago Bulls reserve Nate Robinson into throwing an errant pass out of bounds and essentially thwarted any chances of a comeback.
Defense — the hidden element of a surprising run that has been overshadowed by the return of Wall — was on full display on Saturday night at Verizon Center, where Washington contested and rotated with ferocity and won, 86-73. The Wizards limited the Bulls to a season-low 11 points in the third quarter, 29 points in the second half and held all but one player below double figures in scoring, as they claimed their fifth consecutive victory at home.
“As a coach, I’ll take it against a high school team. I’ll take any win,” Wittman said with a laugh after the Wizards improved to 7-3 in their past 10 games. “They are all nice. This is a good team. But a win’s a win. . . . I think from start to finish, I think this was our best defensive effort for 48” minutes.
The Wizards (11-31) remain on a run that is perplexing and cute, given the dramatic turn in their fortunes since Wall made his season debut and the uncertainty about where this success is going to lead. The playoffs remain a distant fantasy, a hope that they continue to cling to until they are mathematically eliminated. But they remain on push to at least leave behind their days as the league’s worst team.
“I remember in the beginning, everybody say we” stink, Nene said after scoring a team-high 16 points. “Now we start to prove a point. Now we start playing our game, have back all of our players. Now it’s our team. Now we’re going to shut up people’s mouth. That’s what we’re going to do.”
Wall has justifiably received much of the attention with the Wizards playing a much more inspired and fluid brand of basketball, but the team hasn’t needed to rely on one dominant scorer and has proven to be effective with ball movement and aggressive defense. They also won for the sixth time in nine games with Wall, who had 15 points and seven assists but deflected the credit after the game.
“It’s not just me. Never just me,” Wall said. “It’s my team. I just wanted to come in and be a spark for the team and just play my game. We’re just happy to get wins, happy to play as a team, trusting each other and giving the city back what they deserve and that’s us playing hard. . . . It’s been a long time since we had a couple of winning streaks, but we can’t let it get to our heads.”
The Wizards started the five-game home run with an upset of Oklahoma City minus Wall, but the last four have all been decided by double digits and a combined 65 points. Beating a struggling Atlanta team, a reeling Orlando team and an undermanned Minnesota team at home is one thing, but doing the same against a Chicago team that entered the game with the third-best record in the Eastern Conference is another.
The Bulls have been without former most valuable player Derrick Rose all season and were without all-star forward Luol Deng for the fifth consecutive game. But Chicago was also riding a season-high three-game winning streak — including a trouncing of Golden State, a Western Conference playoff contender, the previous night.
When asked what this current run will eventually produce, Jordan Crawford paused and said: “We’ll see. We can’t make a story out of it before it happens. We’ll see where it takes us, trying to get as many wins as we can.”
Webster wasn’t afraid to step out on a limb. “We feel like we should be easily above .500 right now, but if we continue to play the game the right way, I think we’ll be there real soon,” Webster said, seemingly forgetting that the Wizards still remain 20 games below .500 and would have to go 31-9 the rest of the way to reach that goal. “Nothing has changed, except for our starting point guard. But as far as defensively, mentally, we’ve been preparing ourselves for games like this every day. So it’s not surprising. We’ll be surprised when we find ourselves above .500.”
The Bulls led 40-35 when Robinson made a short floater in the lane, but the Wizards responded with a 25-6 run over the next 10 minutes. Emeka Okafor made a spin move, converted a difficult layup to put the Wizards ahead, 60-46, and forced Bulls Coach Tom Thibodeau to call a timeout.
Okafor combined with Nene to keep all-star center Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer in check. Boozer was so flustered that he took his frustrations out on Okafor, picking up a flagrant foul for shoving Okafor in the face and to the ground when he failed to give him room in the low post. Later, Okafor attempted to drive around Boozer and collided directly into Boozer’s left shoulder. Boozer then assisted Okafor on his fall, tossing him to the ground and collecting a technical foul.
“Things get aggressive, boys will be boys and things happen,” said Okafor, who recorded his ninth double-double with 15 points and 16 rebounds. “It’s fun. I’m a physical player. I’m built for it. I don’t shy away from contact. When it gets rough, that’s better for me.”
The Wizards led by 20 points in the fourth quarter before the Bulls chopped it half and trailed, 77-67, when Robinson made a three-pointer. Wall ended the run when he got fouled, made two free throws and then, after Robinson tossed the ball into the Wizards bench, found Okafor along the baseline for a jumper that put them back up by 14 points with 4 minutes 17 seconds remaining.
“This solidifies and lets us know, you guys are making the right moves in the right direction,” Okafor said. “We are the team we thought we were supposed to be, fully loaded.”