From his first days on the job with the Washington Wizards, Coach Scott Brooks wanted to build a culture. One of winning, of course, but also one that maintained an element of fun.
The formula continues to produce. Thursday’s 116-108 win at Verizon Center was the Wizards’ 16th straight at home, the second-longest such streak in team history.
“You want your players to really enjoy coming to the gym and coming to the games and playing for each other, and that’s the kind of culture that I want to build,” said Brooks, who earlier this week was named the Eastern Conference’s coach of the month for January.
The Wizards (29-20) are not just winning at home. This was their sixth straight win overall, a run that includes triumphs at Charlotte, Atlanta and New Orleans. At times Thursday night, however — with a large assembly of fans in purple and gold scattered throughout the announced crowd of 16,473 — the Wizards may have felt like visitors in their own house.
John Wall, in particular, did not appreciate the cheers when the Lakers fought back from a 19-point first-quarter deficit to draw even at 91 with 9:09 remaining. So he resurrected homecourt advantage by scoring the Wizards’ next eight points. Wall scored 16 of his game-high 33 points in the final quarter to go with 11 assists for his 29th double-double.
“That had a little bit to do with that,” Wall responded when asked whether the Lakers’ fans fueled his run. “But us just not trying to lose the game. We’ve been playing well. . . . We just wanted to keep the streak going.”
Before halftime Wall was more of a distributor. He went into intermission with seven assists, just one shy of matching the Lakers’ total, while Bradley Beal was the marksman.
Beal made his first five three-pointers and finished with 23 points. The Wizards’ frontcourt had its moments: Marcin Gortat produced 21 points and 14 rebounds , while Markieff Morris scored 12 points and pulled down eight of his 11 rebounds through the fourth quarter.
“We did a good job down the stretch,” Beal said. “Withstanding their run and getting stops when we needed to. Then John closed it out.”
Wizards players have spoken only casually about the home streak. Besides the postgame tweets sent out by rookie Sheldon McClellan to commemorate each win — “16!!!” — the significance of the streak has been met with muted enthusiasm. Brooks explained why before Thursday’s tip.
“My mind-set, what I want to make sure I get across to all the players, [is] we have to do our job and you can’t rest. You can’t get so happy,” Brooks said. “Happy teams get beat. Confident teams play well.”
The Wizards appear to be striking a perfect balance, evident whenever a lead starts ballooning and Wall morphs into an entertainer. Wall sensed the moment in the middle of the Wizards’ 12-2 second-quarter run. As he dribbled near the sideline with Lakers guard D’Angelo Russell on his back, a simple pass to Gortat wouldn’t have done it. Instead, Wall added extra sauce with a spin move.
On the next play, after Washington forced a turnover, Wall delivered a left-handed bounce pass to Beal for a fast-break finish.
The Wizards also have found just as much delight in the dirty work of defense. In the fourth quarter, while Wall took over on the offensive end, the team also sharpened its defensive focus.
Morris blocked a layup attempt by Larry Nance Jr., then Beal chased down Russell from behind on a fast break. And when Luol Deng collected the offensive rebound and saw a clear lane to the rim, Gortat stepped in and denied his easy path by taking the charge.
“We just kept fighting. We wanted to make big plays,” Wall said, “and one of the biggest plays of the game was Brad’s chase-down block.”
After the win, Brooks focused on the bullet points for improvement — losing the 19-point lead, allowing 64 points in the second half — rather than praise. Several players echoed the critique. The Wizards are protecting themselves from contentment and finding happiness in the way they’re playing and not simply the result.
“We [are] playing [the] right way now,” Gortat said. “We definitely have a rhythm. We just got to continue to do this.”