MEMPHIS — The Washington Wizards knew they were going to be in for a physical game against the Memphis Grizzlies, an aggressive team that likes to push, shove, grab and lean until their opponents give in.
But Kevin Seraphin and Trevor Booker were up for the challenge of trying to defend the Grizzlies’ imposing front line of all-star Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, who recently returned from a nearly two-month absence. John Wall and Jordan Crawford took it upon themselves to carry the offensive load, but the game still turned out to be a sloppy battle of bad passes and bodies falling and never had a rhythm.
“They muck it up,” Coach Randy Wittman said. “There’s a lot of bumping, grinding, fouling, that makes it that way.”
And though the Wizards were able to overcome most of their mistakes and hang around, their emphasis on stopping Gasol and Randolph let Baltimore native Rudy Gay carry his team to a 97-92 victory at FedEx Forum. Gay scored 21 of his game-high 27 points in the second half, putting the game away with 23.9 seconds remaining when the Wizards trapped Gasol, leaving Gay open for a three-pointer. Admiring his shot, Gay lifted his leg as it dropped to give the Grizzlies a seven-point lead.
“He came alive,” Wittman said. “Good players do that.”
Wall led the Wizards with 25 points and had tremendous spring in his step, as he started the second half by catching an incredible alley-oop lob from Crawford (22 points, three assists) and dunking as Gasol fouled him. He also had two impressive blocked shots, tracking down Tony Allen to block a layup attempt to force a turnover, and breaking up a three-on-two fast break to slap a Mike Conley layup attempt off the glass and recovering the rebound.
But Wall had so much bounce that he was leaping at inopportune times — such as when he was making passes. Wall tried to attack the Memphis defense by driving and kicking the ball out, but he often left his feet and threw it away. He had seven turnovers — coming off a career-high, nine-turnover performance the previous game in Atlanta — including a late miscue in which he dribbled down the clock, lost control of the ball then slapped it out of bounds as he fell to the ground.
“Against a team like this, where everybody is active, even their big man, you can’t really leave your feet,” Wall said. “And they do a great job of rotating and that’ll get you in trouble.”
Both teams combined for 35 turnovers in a sloppy game, as players treated the ball as if had been dipped in a tub of grease before tip-off. Passes were sliding out of hands, bouncing off various parts and blocked shots even came in awkward ways. Gay came from behind to yank the ball away from Seraphin as he attempted a jumper. Seraphin came back to snatch the ball away from Conley (17 points) as he attempted to make a driving layup.
The Wizards (10-34) have lost four of their first five games on this season-long, six-game trip and are just 4-18 away from Verizon Center this season.
Nene, the Wizards’ key acquisition in Thursday’s three-team trade deadline deal, is set to make his debut with the team when the trip concludes on Wednesday against the New Jersey Nets. But Seraphin continued to hold down the middle well in his absence. Matched up against Gasol, Seraphin held his own, scoring 12 points, grabbing a career-high 12 rebounds, blocking two shots and limiting Gasol to just 15 points on 6-for-16 shooting.
“I like the challenge, because when I play some big men like that, the all-star game guys, I’m excited. Every time I play Dwight [Howard], [Andrew] Bynum, Marc Gasol or Zach Randolph,” said Seraphin, who has averaged 11.3 points, 9.3 rebounds and 2.7 blocks — numbers almost identical to the recently jettisoned JaVale McGee — in the past three games. “I was waiting for this moment. Not the trade. I was waiting for them to give me an opportunity to play.”
Reserve Andray Blatche struggled on both ends of the floor during a brief first half stint and was benched for final 33 minutes after he passed on an open jumper to pass the ball directly to Grizzlies reserve O.J. Mayo. A perplexed Wittman sat still on the bench, finger pressed against his nose and he pondered what had just occurred.
Wittman called on the newly acquired Brian Cook, though the veteran had yet to practice with the team. Cook wasn’t shy, as he attempted four three-pointers, connecting on one that brought the Wizards within 78-75 in the fourth quarter.
“It felt good to get out there,” Cook said. “I haven’t played for a little while. It’s good to get out there and compete. We had a chance to win the game, just made some minor mistakes in the end. I think we can get better.”
The Wizards tied the score at 80 with a fast-break dunk, but the Grizzlies scored the next six points, with Gay burying a pull-up jumper.
“We are getting better as a team, we’re playing together. We just need to take out certain stretches in the third or second quarter or any quarter, when we try to go one-on-one a lot,” Wall said. “That hurts us and helps the other team get the fast-break points. We didn’t do what we were supposed to do down the stretch.”