In good times and bad, the Washington Wizards are an excitable bunch. When your best player is an ebullient point guard, when a moody center nicknamed the Polish Hammer mans the middle and when your power forward creates a “Death Row DC” alter ego, you’re not going to be a laid-back team. Raw emotion fuels and hinders the Wizards.
During his first season in Washington, Coach Scott Brooks has attempted to channel that passion, especially with John Wall. Brooks, whose cool demeanor belies his competitiveness, preaches composure, professionalism and consistent focus. In coaching Wall, who has let frustration over officiating influence his game over the years, Brooks sought to instill a measure of controlled relentlessness, an understanding that nothing — the referees, the scoreboard, his own struggles — should prevent him from attacking the basket and the game.
It was time for a progress report at Verizon Center on Wednesday night. In Game 2 against the Atlanta Hawks, the referees displayed some predictable overcorrection after Atlanta griped about Washington getting to play too rugged in the series opener. The officials kept blowing their whistles, so often and so questionably that even Wizards owner Ted Leonsis became so upset that he left his courtside seat near the bench late in the second quarter and walked away to calm down.
The game was choppy, and in the third quarter, the Wizards lost their focus and their lead. But that’s when a season of measured leadership kicked in, and Wall and his team found their poise. The result was a spirited finish, a 109-101 victory and a 2-0 series lead after an emotional night of riveting playoff tension.
As they recovered from an awful third quarter, the Wizards showed how much they’ve matured. It started with Wall, who refused to relent despite justifiable complaints about no-calls. In the past, Wall might have stopped driving as much after hitting the floor repeatedly. But in this game, as he has done all season, he kept fighting. He scored 32 points for the second straight game, to go with nine assists and five rebounds. But he also forced the referees to make calls with his aggressive play, and for all his frustration, he wound up shooting 15 free throws, making 12 of them.
For the entire team, it was the kind of persistent effort you’d expect from the Wizards considering what they’ve learned. They lost eight of their first 10 games, and they had just a 7-13 record after 20 games, but they still finished with 49 wins, a division title and a No. 4 playoff seed. Wall played his best basketball after recovering from double knee surgery in the offseason. Despite all the scrutiny of Bradley Beal’s health and questions of whether he deserved the $128 million contract he received last summer, he played the best basketball of his career. The Wizards became a great comeback story. They outlasted negativity on so many levels.
So it was only fitting that they brought that trait to the postseason. This game was the perfect test of their poise. Early in the third quarter, Markieff Morris, Otto Porter Jr. and Kelly Oubre Jr. were all on the bench with four fouls. After contributing 21 points, seven rebounds, four blocks and a defining defensive effort against Paul Millsap in Game 1, Morris was on the floor for just 20 minutes Wednesday. He scored just three points. Porter had just four.
In a game marred by 55 combined fouls and 71 combined free throws, the Wizards struggled to find rhythm. They were called for 29 of those fouls, 24 of which came in the first three quarters. They watched an eight-point halftime lead turn into a seven-point deficit in the third. It looked like the Hawks would tie the series, and ref bashing would dominate the next few days.
Then Brandon Jennings, the backup point guard who shot 27.4 percent after joining the Wizards late in the season, brought them back. He channeled his Milwaukee playing days, making three straight jumpers in the fourth quarter and then dropping a beautiful pass to Jason Smith for a dunk. The play of Jennings (10 points) and Smith (eight points, eight rebounds) energized the Wizards. Then Wall and Beal took over, combining for 24 of Washington’s 35 fourth-quarter points, including 20 of the last 21. Include the Wizards’ bench stretch of defense so far in the series, and a frustrating game turned into wonderfully resilient performance.
It doesn’t excuse how ridiculous and inconsistent the officiating was. But at least the story of the game didn’t turn into the story of the series. There’s nothing worse than extended ref baiting. It’s much better to watch the better team settle things on the court. And the Wizards are clearly the better team.
Late in the game, with the Wizards leading 99-96, Wall took a charge, rose to his feet and stared at the crowd. The fans reacted by cheering wildly. Then Wall lifted his arms to request more noise. And on the next possession, he made a jumper to give Washington a five-point margin.
It was that kind of game. He had to keep attacking. There could be no excuses, not even legitimate ones.
There was a time when Wall’s emotions would’ve taken him out of his game. But he’s better now, and he’s playing the best basketball of his career. He’s playing so well that nothing, not even one of his pet peeves, can knock him off course.
The excitable Wizards continue to grow up in stunning fashion.
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.