CHARLOTTE — They were bumbling, breaking down and giving it away. A 19-point second-half lead appeared to be ample cushion for the Washington Wizards against a depleted Charlotte Bobcats team. But the Wizards have rarely been in positions of power on the road this season, and they showed that the prosperity was too much to handle, letting the lead eventually get whittled down to six in a matter of minutes.
What should’ve been an easy victory turned into a hard-fought battle, but the Wizards proved to have more than enough with rookie Jordan Crawford confidently stemming the initial run with a series of crucial, long jumpers and Andray Blatche providing the finishing touches, continuing his dominance on the glass and scoring inside. Blatche had a team-high 25 points and added 17 rebounds, while Crawford scored 23 points as the Wizards claimed their third road win and won consecutive games away from Verizon Center for the first time this season, 97-91, at Time Warner Cable Arena.
“We’re just doing better when it gets tough and in hard-nosed situations,” said John Wall, who scored 18 points and handed out five assists in his return from a one-game suspension, following an altercation with Miami Heat center Zydrunas Ilgauskas. “It was good for us to get a win. We’re learning how to keep playing and keep fighting.”
For one of the few times this season, the Wizards (20-56) entered a road arena possessing, perhaps, the much better team. The Bobcats, consigned to the fact that their playoff hopes were slowly becoming a pipe dream, were down to just nine healthy players and missing leading scorer Stephen Jackson. They had few offensive options outside of D.J. Augustin (21 points) but Matt Carroll provided a surprising spark off the bench, scoring 17 of his game-high 26 points in the fourth quarter.
The Wizards never really stopped Carroll until Wall denied his final layup attempt in the closing seconds, with a vicious block that he celebrated by jumping into Blatche before walking off the court, victorious for the first time as a professional in his home state.
Blatche gave the Wizards a 69-50 lead with 5 minutes 4 seconds left in the third quarter, but that lead quickly evaporated. Wall made a free throw to put the Wizards ahead by 16 with 23.7 seconds remaining in the period, but they started to collapse from there. Augustin made a driving layup to bring Charlotte within 76-62, then Yi Jianlian had a terrible sequence in the final 6.3 seconds. He made a bad pass ahead to Wall that Augustin scooped up. Then Yi fouled Augustin as he made a layup. After Augustin made the free throw to bring Charlotte within 11, Wall tried to attempt a last-second heave but dribbled the ball off Yi’s foot.
The Bobcats didn’t stop charging, as Carroll outscored the Wizards 7-2 to start the fourth period, bringing his team within 78-72 with 10:06 left in the game. Crawford, though, helped calm down his teammates, knocking down a series of jumpers that helped the Wizards build the lead back to 12. After making a step-back jumper that forced Bobcats Coach Paul Silas to call timeout, Crawford ran to the sideline, pushing down his hands. With his team having learned from its previous road win in Utah — where it blew a nine-point fourth-quarter lead before winning in overtime — Crawford wasn’t worried about completely losing grasp.
“Nah, nah. I told them, to chill, we got this,” Crawford said with a grin. “We refused to lose. We’re starting to get the mentality where we think we can win it. When you think you can win, you can pull it off. You’ve got a lot of confidence.”
The Wizards have won three of their past four games, with the latest victory ensuring the team won’t join the 2000-01 and 2008-09 Wizards with the worst 82-game record in franchise history.
“Was I concerned? No,” Coach Flip Saunders said, when asked about avoiding the third 19-win season in the past 10 years. “The way we’re playing, we’re going to get some wins. We’ve got a chance now, playing Detroit to win three in a row for the first time in three years. We’ve been close lately. Over this last week, we’ve really played at a high level. We’ve had our best stretch right now.”
Blatche has certainly had his best two-game stretch of the season, following up his career night against Cleveland on Friday — when he had 36 points and 19 rebounds — with more assertive play. He drove the ball with authority, stepped back to hit jumpers after developing a rhythm, and fought for five offensive rebounds, knocking down his own miss late and screaming toward the crowd.
“I just came with a lot of effort and aggressiveness. I tried to attack the rim and just tried to play with a lot of energy and hoped my teammates would follow off my energy,” Blatche said. “It feels good to win. It’s something we’re trying to get used to. Our confidence is very high right now. All the hard work we’ve been going through is starting to pay off.”
JaVale McGee added 15 points, 7 rebounds and 3 blocked shots, while Maurice Evans had 11 points, including a huge layup after the Bobcats had cut it to six points again, late in the fourth quarter.
“If we keep getting used to the adversity and fighting through it, we evolve as a team,” Evans said. When it got within six, everybody stepped up and made plays. We just kept chipping away.”