Had the Washington Wizards gotten the opposite in those three games, they could’ve returned home early Thursday morning with a perfect five-game road trip and riding an incredible eight-game winning streak. But for a team that failed to win more than four games through the first two months of the season, the incremental progress toward respectability that came as the result of going 2-3 on their season-high five-game journey will have to do.
“It was good. Good trip,” Coach Randy Wittman said, with his team now set to host Minnesota and Chicago on consecutive nights beginning on Friday at Verizon Center. “Our last eight games, I told them, we’ve built a good solid brand of basketball and we’ve got to continue to build on that. And not take any steps backward, moving forward as we get back.”
Traveling through five cities and two time zones was exhausting — Wall said it “felt like a month” — but the Wizards were fortunate to escape Denver on Wall’s last-second block and Portland on Jordan Crawford’s buzzer-beating three-pointer. They also know that the flight back to Dulles International Airport would’ve been better with at least one more win.
“That’s what makes it hurt so much. We were right there,” center Emeka Okafor said after the Wizards ended the trip with a 92-88 loss in Salt Lake City. “We’re playing excellent basketball. Every game we lost this trip, we could’ve easily won. We have nothing to hang our head about the way we played at all. It’s just when you play hard, you want to win.”
Before Wall made his season debut on Jan. 12, the Wizards played hard but didn’t always expect to win, which resulted in some head-scratching collapses and heartbreaking defeats. But with Wall in the lineup, even in short doses, Washington is no longer settling for simply giving themselves a chance to win.
“I like our chances against anybody,” rookie Bradley Beal said. “I love this team and the route that we’re going.”
The Wizards (9-31) neither raised their unrealistic playoff expectations nor gave themselves a reason to pack it in for the rest of the season. Their three losses were by a combined 12 points, the two wins by a combined seven, and none was decided until the final minute.
They also discovered that the perception of the team has changed in the minds of the opposition. No longer judged by being in the bottom of the standings with Wall back in the lineup, the Wizards are no longer viewed as an easy out or a night off.
“Those guys have a lot of pride,” Jazz Coach Tyrone Corbin said. “They are going to compete and fight.”
Chris Paul came back a little earlier than expected on a bruised right kneecap and the Clippers, who had the league’s second-best record at the time, needed all of his 22 points and 11 assists to upend the Wizards. The Jazz spoke glowingly of the Wizards before the game and jumped all over them, building a 22-point lead before holding off a Wall-led charge that eventually fizzled.
“It’s totally different,” Nene said. “Now people respect us because they know we are going to play hard.”
Wall’s presence, even in limited doses, has raised the confidence and energy level for the Wizards, making them more entertaining. But the Wizards showed on the trip that they don’t have to rely on one player.
Beal scored 49 points in the first two games before he was limited after injuring his right wrist during a hard fall in Denver. Kevin Seraphin had 14 fourth-quarter points against the Nuggets. Wall scored a season-high 24 points against the Clippers. Nene and Martell Webster both had 24 points and Jordan Crawford scored 13 in the fourth quarter in Portland. Trevor Ariza, who returned this month from a left calf injury, also made some huge shots playing in a reserve role. And Okafor routinely picked up rebounds and loose balls, doing the dirty work.
Wall has come off the bench in all seven games he has played and Wittman said the former No. 1 pick will remain on a minutes restriction until the Wizards’ medical staff determines that he can do more on his left knee. But his influence has been immediate, dating from his initial full-contact practice, which came a day before the Wizards lost in double overtime to Brooklyn. They upset Oklahoma City two days after Wall’s second practice.
The five-game road trip only strengthened what he felt about the team. “I think that we’ve been playing the exact same way we’ve been all year. Our practices have got more spirited,” Wall said. “I think a lot people take us serious now, because we’ve got our full team healthy and when we play together and play the defense we’re supposed to, we can beat just about anybody.”