Greg Monroe hop-stepped to the basket, eyes set on adding to his 18 points and buoying his Detroit Pistons over the Washington Wizards as the final minute ticked off at Verizon Center on Wednesday night. But as the former Georgetown star bounced off the hardwood, an arm appeared. It belonged to Rasual Butler, and the Wizards reserve was precise, cleanly swiping the basketball off Monroe’s right knee and out of bounds.
The referees reviewed the sequence and upheld the ruling to Monroe’s frustration. With 57.9 seconds remaining, Washington capitalized at the other end with a dazzling display of ball movement — from point guard John Wall to Nene to front-court partner Marcin Gortat along the baseline. Gortat finished with a two-handed dunk to give the Wizards a three-point lead they would not relinquish in a 107-103 victory.
The win, which came despite some poor free throw shooting down the stretch, opened a four-game homestand and gave the Wizards their first 6-2 start since the 1975-76 season.
“I wasn’t thought about in this world,” Wall joked. “I wasn’t even born yet. But it’s great.”
Butler’s two free throws with four seconds remaining clinched the contest and concluded his best performance as a Wizard. The 35-year-old swingman, a training camp invite, was not in the Wizards’ rotation a week ago but was on the floor down the stretch as the Wizards navigate life without the injured Bradley Beal.
The pivotal minutes were a reward for the jolt he provided off the bench as he poured in a season-high 18 points on 7-for-8 shooting in 27 minutes. Butler headlined a substantial effort from the Wizards’ bench, which outscored the Pistons reserves 39-25.
“I just had the opportunity to get some good looks tonight, and they went down for me,” Butler said. “We did a good job executing our plays, and I was the recipient of some good looks Coach [Randy] Wittman’s offense creates for players.”
Detroit’s massive front court — 6-foot-9 Josh Smith at small forward, 6-11 Monroe at power forward and 6-11 Andre Drummond at center — was a primary concern for the Wizards entering the game. But the Pistons’ front court didn’t confound the Wizards; their back court did.
Brandon Jennings and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope jumped out to a torrid start, combining for 24 of the Pistons’ 34 points in the first quarter. The notoriously streaky Jennings, who once tallied 55 points in a game early in his career, outscored the Wizards 12-11 in the contest’s first seven minutes and netted 21 points in the first half.
“I didn’t think the kid was going to miss,” Wittman said. “He got it going. I give credit to him. He carried them in that first half.”
Jennings’s exploits were the focus at intermission. The Wizards surmised that the big men were sagging too far off the swift left-handed point guard on pick-and-rolls. To slow him down, the Wizards were determined to contest Jennings and force him to drive, especially to his right.
The strategy was effective. The Wizards jumped on the Pistons at the start of the third quarter to take a seven-point lead, though Jennings still managed to total 11 points and six assists in the second half to finish with a game-high 32 points to go along with 10 assists.
“That, I thought, was the turning point,” Wittman said. “We got ourselves back in it in the first six minutes.”
Jennings was required to shoulder a heavier burden when Drummond, who finished with two points and five rebounds, was relegated to the bench after committing two fouls in the game’s first five minutes. An assertive Wall capitalized. Off to a poor shooting night, the point guard attacked the rim with the Pistons’ elite rim protector on the bench, regularly shifting into top gear and relentlessly attacking the Pistons defense. By halftime he had made 11 of 13 free throws and finished 13 for 16 from the line.
“I was just trying to be aggressive,” Wall said. “That got our team going, and that also got me going. I wasn’t making shots early.”
Wall paced the Wizards’ five double-digit scorers with 27 points and 11 assists for his fifth double-double. Paul Pierce pulled himself out of a three-game slump with 13 points on 5 -for-11 shooting. Gortat added 14 points and 13 rebounds, and Kris Humphries chipped in 12 points and nine rebounds off the bench.
But Butler, the 15th man, provided the pivotal plays — the jump shots, the free throws, the defensive stop — in the crucial moments in his Wizards home debut. He had not logged a single second on the floor in Washington’s first two home games.
“He did a little bit of everything,” Wittman said.