LOS ANGELES – An improving lottery team that has consistently been awful away from home was without its regular starting center and promising rookie shooting guard. An underachieving team expected to be a championship contender but suddenly fighting just to make the playoffs brought back a future hall of fame shooting guard and a possible future hall of fame big man back to the lineup on Saturday at Staples Center.
The Washington Wizards and Los Angeles Lakers were moving in different directions, which made Friday’s 103-100 Wizards win all the more unexpected. But with John Wall running the point with command, and Trevor Ariza back at home and shooting like never before from beyond the three-point line, the undermanned Wizards managed their most impressive road win of the season.
“Awesome. Pure joy. A colossal win,” forward Martell Webster said. “This is probably the best. They brought everybody back and respect to them, because they respected us. And that’s why Kobe and Pau came back. They’re making a push, so whenever we can upset somebody making a push, it makes it that much more sweet. We don’t have a chance to get into the playoffs but we have a chance to upset some people.”
Without Emeka Okafor and Bradley Beal, the Wizards were bound to have problems against the Lakers, even if they didn’t have Kobe Bryant or Pau Gasol. But with that duo returning, giving the Lakers their ideal starting lineup for the first in more than two months, the Wizards simply needed to avoid embarrassment.
That simple task was challenge for the Wizards, as they quickly fell behind by 18 points in the first half.
Wall scored 24 points and handed out a career-high 16 assists, Ariza nailed a career-high seven three-pointers to finish with 25 points and Nene scored five of his 15 points in the last two minutes as the Wizards (25-43) beat the Lakers in Los Angeles for the first time since Dec. 17, 2006. They were able to withstand a late Bryant barrage and hold off a well-rested Lakers team that hadn’t played since losing on Monday in Phoenix.
“Just to come here and win my first game at Staples Center was great. Everybody doubted us when they brought Kobe and Pau back. We just have a lot of heart and character,” said Wall, who has led the Wizards to a 20-15 record since returning. “My confidence is probably the highest I had since I was 14 playing AAU. I’m growing before my eyes and maturing as a point guard, running the show and with time and clock situations.”
Bryant was content playing the role of facilitator through the first three quarters, as he had more assists (11) than field goal attempts (eight), but with the game getting out of control, he put the Lakers on his back and carried them in the final period. Bryant scored 13 of his 21 points in the fourth quarter, including four straight to give the Lakers a 97-94 lead.
“He hits that three and we can’t guard it any better. We can’t guard it any better,” Coach Randy Wittman said of Bryant. “I didn’t look at that last one. I’ve seen him do it too often. He’s the most incredible player in making a shot like the one he missed.”
Wall then ran plays to Nene, who made a layup and then a hook shot to give the Wizards a 98-97 lead with 1 minute, 23 seconds remaining.
After missing the past two games with a sprained ankle and the flu, Bryant appeared to be wearing down in the final minutes as he came up short on two fadeaway jumpers with Ariza defending. Then, with an opportunity to tie the game, Bryant again missed a jumper and Wall grabbed the rebound and raced up the floor. Wall drew a foul, then dribbled underneath his basket and slammed the ball to the ground, confidently strutting up the court as fans looked on in stupefied silence. He made both free throws, but Bryant quickly answered with a three-pointer.
Ariza then fed Wall on an inbounds and Wall drew another foul and calmly made both free throws, but the Wizards still hadn’t secured the win until Bryant’s last desperation three-pointer hit the front of the rim as time expired.
Okafor missed his second straight game with the flu and Beal was forced to sit for the seventh time in the past 10 games after aggravating a severely sprained left ankle in the Wizards’ 88-79 win on Wednesday in Phoenix. Okafor, Beal and A.J. Price, who missed his sixth straight game with a sore right groin, were all in the locker room, watching the game and getting treatment. Okafor will possibly return on Saturday when the Wizards conclude this four-game trip in Oakland against the Golden State Warriors.
Coach Randy Wittman started Jason Collins for the second game in a row, hoping that he could slow down Dwight Howard in a manner similar to how he limited Suns center Jermaine O’Neal. Collins has had success flustering Howard in previous stops, but Howard had no trouble getting the shots he wanted.
The Lakers (36-34) led 72-61 when Howard made a layup, but the Wizards responded by scoring the next nine points unanswered. Wall made a driving layup and buried an 18-foot jumper, then fed Ariza for a driving layup and a three-pointer to bring the Wizards within two points, forcing Lakers Coach Mike D’Antoni to call a timeout.
Bryant made a jumper, but Wall again got inside for another easy layup and tied the game at 74 when he stepped back and hit a pull-up jumper. Meeks scored 24 points and made four three-pointers when the Lakers defeated the Wall-less Wizards, 102-96, back on Dec. 14 and again came back to have a big game against them. He scored five straight points before Wall and Ariza combined to score the next seven, with Kevin Seraphin finding Ariza cutting for a layup that gave the Wizards their first lead of the game.
“We didn’t get down on ourselves. We kept fighting even though we were down early,” said Ariza, a former Laker whose son, Tajh, turned five on Friday and was at the game to celebrated his birthday. “We were trying to get a road win. We’re trying to rack up wins.”
Martell Webster had 13 points, Garrett Temple had 10 and Seraphin scored 12 as the Wizards improved to 7-26 on the road this season.
Gasol only had four points and eight rebounds in 21 minutes. Howard finished with 20 points and 15 rebounds but didn’t have a field goal attempt in the fourth quarter.
“I’m really proud of these guys. To come in here and be down 18 in the first half and to fight like that, to give yourselves a chance to win,” Wittman said. “We’ve had some good ones. We beat Miami without John. I’m not discounting this one at all. Obviously, this game is going to rank up there.”