Two people who don’t play for the team received the loudest recognition from the Verizon Center crowd — Heat forward LeBron James and Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III — and the Wizards were something like an afterthought in their presence.
By the end of the night, however, the Wizards had flipped the script, knocking off the Heat by keeping their composure in the crucial moments and recording a stunning 105-101 victory.
“I told the guys, the only people that really think you have a chance is us here, right in this locker room,” Coach Randy Wittman said. “I said we needed to have a statement game. What better opportunity to come and play in front of the fans that we knew were going to be here and to beat this team? And they took it to heart.”
The Wizards (2-13) never trailed after the first quarter and set season-highs in assists (31), field goal percentage (48.1), points in regulation. They even showed a little attitude with less than two minutes and remaining and James, the three-time MVP, at the foul line with the Wizards leading by four. Reserve guard Jordan Crawford walked directly in front James, clapping his hands to distract him.
“Make him think about it a little bit,” Crawford said afterward.
It was a scene reminiscent of the 2006 playoffs when James, then with Cleveland, once tapped Gilbert Arenas across the chest, psyching him out of two free throws that resulted in a series-ending loss for the Wizards. James missed both free throws on Tuesday, which meant that fans would get free Chick-Fil-A sandwiches (any time an opposing player misses two straight free throws in the fourth quarter, the promotion kicks in), but they were also excited because the Wizards were closing in on the improbable.
After so-many close calls this season, the downtrodden team displayed some cockiness and a little gamesmanship.
“Confidence is key,” Crawford said after posting team highs with 22 points and six assists. “It’s easy to get pumped for this, a game against the best players and I think it’s going to help us for the rest of the season, because everybody is gaining confidence in themselves and making us a better team.”
Miami’s all-star trio of James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh combined for 70 points, but the Wizards helped keep the rest of the Heat players in check. The Heat (12-4) also struggled from beyond the three-point line, missed 20 of its 28 attempts from long distance, including five in a row after former Wizard Mike Miller made a three-pointer that brought his team within 97-95 with 4 minutes 16 seconds left.
James had his first triple-double of the season with 26 points, 13 rebounds and 11 assists but he missed a three-pointer that could’ve tied the score with 3.9 seconds remaining.
Nene clinched the victory by grabbing the rebound and making a free throw.
“We know that every team is going to come playing their very best. They’re going to make shots they normally don’t make,” said James, who learned how much the tides have turned since he became an NBA champion, as he received the loudest cheers of any player; unusual for a player once despised in Washington during some infamous playoff battles with the Wizards between 2006-08.
“Did you hear the announcements? They call LeBron’s [name], it’s like, ‘Geez,’ We won on the road at home. How crazy is that?” said Martell Webster, who scored 13 points off the bench and defended James after starter Trevor Ariza went down with a strained left calf early in the third quarter. “In this locker room, we have to believe in each other.”
Kevin Seraphin came off the bench after starting the previous three games to score 16 points and grabbed 10 rebounds as the Wizards truly had to earn the support of their home fans. Early in the first quarter, center Emeka Okafor went to the foul line and the crowd erupted to raucous applause — but only because Griffin was casually making his way to Wizards owner Ted Leonsis’s courtside seats. As Griffin grabbed a seat, one fan shouted, “Suit up!”
Griffin received a standing ovation after he was formally introduced and the Wizards closed the first period on a 22-15 run with him looking on. The Wizards led the rest of the way and showed they had learned some hard lessons from those disappointing defeats in overtime and fourth-quarter collapses.
“I’m happy for those guys,” Wittman said. “That was a complete game for us; from start to finish.”
The Wizards hope the victory will help them turn around a season that already seems lost. “If we keep it up, we’ll be above .500 in no time,” Webster said.