The goal seems simple for most organizations, but it has been an arduous journey for a Washington Wizards franchise accustomed to slow starts and lottery appearances in the past six years. But with the target well in sight on Monday night, and with a realistic chance to make it happen against a weaker opponent, the Wizards stepped onto the court at Verizon Center focused on finally reaching .500 for the first time in four years.
With Trevor Ariza leading the way with hot perimeter shooting, John Wall running another solid floor game and Nene once again battling through a sore right Achilles’ tendon, the Wizards beat the Orlando Magic, 98-80, to improve to 9-9.
Before the game, Coach Randy Wittman said he wanted to see his team continue its climb from a 2-7 start. The Wizards completed a stretch of nine games in 14 days by going 7-2 and they now have the third-best record in the weak Eastern Conference. They are also 34-34 in their past 68 games.
“I thought they came out and they were determined to win this game, start to finish,” Wittman said. “I’m really happy and proud of these guys. We didn’t get off to the kind of start to the season that we wanted and dug a little bit of a hole, but these guys battled back and to do it in a stretch like this, I think it means something. Mentally, I think we’ve come a long ways.”
The Wizards haven’t been .500 since drafting Wall first overall in 2010 and their record is even for the first time since Nov. 3, 2009, when the team was just 2-2. Since then, the Wizards have gone 105-221 and experienced so much hardship and so many embarrassing moments that they have been begging for the dark cloud to find a new team to follow.
“It’s just something we knew that we could do,” Ariza said of reaching .500. “We are not satisfied. We want to continue this winning thing, make it tradition around here, and go forward from there.”
Washington has endured a slow start, but also the absence of leading scorer Bradley Beal, who has missed the past five games with a stress injury in his right leg. The team has gone 4-1 in his absence, thanks in large part to Ariza, who led the Wizards with a game-high 24 points, going 8 of 9 from the floor and 4 of 4 from beyond the three-point line against Orlando. In his past two games, Ariza has scored 48 points and gone 15 for 19 from the field and 9 of 10 from long distance.
“I got a lot of open looks,” Ariza said. “And when you got a lot of time to tee it up, you’re not going to miss too many of them. I work on it every day. Those are shots that I practice and shots that I was in rhythm to take.”
Wall had his eighth double-double of the season with 16 points and 13 assists. Nene added 14 points and Marcin Gortat, whose career began in Orlando, missed his first two field goal attempts in the first half but came alive in the third quarter, scoring 10 of his 13 points.
Only two teams in the East currently have winning records and when they host the Milwaukee Bucks on Friday, the Wizards will have a chance to go above .500 for the first time since being 2-1 in the 2009-10 season. Washington has won five straight games at Verizon Center and is now 6-2 at home.
“Excuse my language, but we’ve been busting our butt,” Nene said. “I know we have a couple of players sore, like myself, and other players but when you win, you forget a little bit, of the pain. Just a little bit. You have no how clue how painful it is to play the last two games. My Achilles’ is hurting a lot. But what matters is doing your best for the team. That’s the reason we succeed.”
The Wizards led all but seven minutes in the second period against the Magic (6-11). After letting 16-point third quarter lead get down to seven, Gortat made a turnaround hook shot, then took a pass from Wall and made a layup. Wall pushed the lead back to 71-55 when he knocked down a three-pointer. Martell Webster only scored five points, but he made a three-pointer from the right corner that gave the Wizards an 82-71 lead.
With a huge lead, Wittman was finally able to provide some relief for his beleaguered starting unit, which has been logging heaving minutes all season. Webster was the only starter to play more than 32 minutes. Gortat, Wall and Ariza didn’t play the entire fourth quarter.
Chris Singleton came off the bench and scored a season-high 11 points. Late in the fourth, Wall got up from his seat to crack a joke with Singleton and Trevor Booker and shook their hands, relieved that he didn’t have to remove the ice packs on his knees and re-enter the game. When rookie Glen Rice Jr. made a three-pointer in the closing seconds, the starters all got up to applaud the most lopsided win of the season.
“It was good, to kind of get some time to relax,” Wall said. “It’s great to see those guys get to see those guys in the second group play basketball and they played well. It’s kind of a confidence-builder for those guys. It was great to see them finish out.”