All the ills of the Washington Wizards’ loathsome first 33 games weren’t cured when John Wall sped up the floor Saturday night, changed his mind in midair and passed to a trailing Bradley Beal for a thunderous one-handed jam.
The fourth-quarter collapses, overtime breakdowns and road no-shows weren’t erased when Wall made Atlanta Hawks guard Devin Harris stumble from a crossover dribble, was fouled while making a difficult bank shot and stomped to the foul line as rejuvenated teammates and fans celebrated at Verizon Center.
Forward Martell Webster may have compared Wall’s delayed season debut to parting “the Red Sea” for the Wizards, but anything short of a truly miraculous finish couldn’t lead Washington to the playoff promised land this season. Because after Wall led the Wizards to a 93-83 victory over the Hawks in his refreshing return, the team is still 6-28 and riding a modest two-game run that Coach Randy Wittman doesn’t even want to call a winning streak.
“They say a winning streak is three so we got to get that third one on Monday” against Orlando, Wittman said with a laugh after Wall scored 14 points and handed out four assists in a 21-minute reminder that there was a reason he was drafted first overall in 2010.
Wall’s first game came too late to salvage a campaign that will surely end with a fifth consecutive lottery appearance. But it has elevated the Wizards into the no-excuses portion of the season, changing the attitude and expectations for the final 48 games.
“It’s not a new season, but in a way it feels like it,” point guard A.J. Price said in describing the mood now that the key component of the franchise’s rebuilding efforts — “the maestro,” as Webster called him — has arrived to effectively put his teammates back into the roles President Ernie Grunfeld intended when he assembled the roster.
Grunfeld didn’t anticipate having Wall go down to a stress injury in his left knee in late September, or that the setback would sideline Wall for more than three months. But he did envision Wall zipping past defenders and getting into the lane for layups, drawing defenses and swinging the ball into the corner for Beal to hit wide-open three-pointers, and making the Wizards appear competent offensively with a talented, athletically gifted and capable floor general leading the way. Those elements came together against Atlanta.
“I just think the game is different now,” Wittman said.
Wall said he didn’t feel any soreness in his left knee but is still at least a week or so away from being in game condition. The beginning against Atlanta was encouraging as Wall repeatedly shouted, “I’m back” — a statement that was supported by his animated trash talk, showmanship and sense to seize control of the game in the final minutes.
“It’s going to be big things coming from him for the rest of the year,” said Beal, who was the beneficiary of Wall’s first three assists against the Hawks. “Everything is at stake right now. We’re going to have to turn it around and keep playing the way we’ve been playing, listen to coach, bear down and buy into what he wants us to do and keep this thing rolling.”
The Wizards are the only NBA team without at least nine victories, but they believe they still have something to play for this season — even if it’s nothing more than avoiding a finish among the bottom three teams in the league. The hole is great, but hope isn’t lost.
“I really feel like we have a fighting chance to make a great impression on the league. To really show the league what we’re capable of doing,” Webster said. “If we only could’ve had a couple more wins in that win column, bringing John back would make it that much more exciting. But now that he’s healthy, that’s the only thing that matters.”
With Wall and Trevor Booker returning against the Hawks, and Price and Trevor Ariza coming back the previous game against Oklahoma City, the Wizards are close to being at full strength with the exception of reserves Jordan Crawford (sore left ankle), who emerged as the team’s leading scorer in Wall’s absence, and Cartier Martin (hyperextended left knee).
Wittman used his 14th starting lineup against the Hawks and will likely do more shuffling once Wall and possibly Ariza are healthy enough to play starters minutes once again.
“Due to injuries and everything we’ve been through, we haven’t had a fair shake or a fair opportunity to show what we can do as a team,” said Price, who missed 15 games this season with a broken right hand. “As long as we keep everybody healthy . . . we’re going to give 110 percent every night and we think that’s good enough to be much better than we are right now. We still have a lot of the season left.”
Wall has no intention of slowing down, no matter the current record. “We got our team now, just keep building,” Wall said. “Let’s see how many wins we can get and then just keep fighting hard and that’s all we can do. You don’t want to give up on the season.”