CLEVELAND — The Washington Wizards woke up Wednesday knowing they would finish the season with the second-worst record in the NBA. But they were far from discouraged or disappointed because as the season is winding down, the fun is just starting to begin.
Following a 96-85 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Wizards left Quicken Loans Arena as the hottest team in the Eastern Conference. They have won five games in a row for the first time in more than more four years.
After the game, the locker room was filled with jokes, laughter and fashion advice, as John Wall chided rookie Shelvin Mack: “What kind of jeans you wearing, Wrangler? You got those Brett Favres on.” Wall later claimed that he would continue to give Mack a hard time for his clothing choices on Twitter.
“It’s just the fact that you’re winning. It feels good to win,” Wall said after finishing with game-highs of 21 points and 13 assists to go with seven rebounds and seven steals. “You can tell, the whole group is having more fun.”
Wall certainly had fun during an electrifying third quarter that turned the game around. With the Cavaliers’ Kyrie Irving, the favorite for NBA rookie of the year, limited to less than 10 minutes — all in the first quarter — as he battled the stomach flu, Wall took advantage at the start of the second half, with one of the more dominant 12-minute performances of his young career.
Wall had made all five of his shots, scored 12 points, handed out six assists, recorded four steals and grabbed three rebounds in the period. He also accounted for 24 of the team’s 28 points in the quarter, helping the Wizards extend a four-point lead to 14 entering the final period.
“When he gets going up and down the floor like that, we’re very effective,” Coach Randy Wittman said. “He’s been this solid throughout the winning streak.”
Wall carved into the lane for easy layups, found his big men cutting to the basket for easy scores and took off on a full-court sprint that ended left-handed flush. He also was disruptive on the defensive end, chasing down loose balls and altering shots.
“I wanted to be more aggressive on the defensive end, and do everything — rebound, pass the ball and we got stops and we got rebounds,” Wall said.
Kevin Seraphin and Nene each scored 12 points, Chris Singleton and James Singleton had 10 apiece and Jan Vesely grabbed a career-high 12 rebounds as the Wizards finished the season with nine road wins — three times as many as in Wall’s rookie season.
They hadn’t won five games in a row since Nov. 11-21, 2007 — when Antawn Jamison, Caron Butler and Gilbert Arenas led the team to its last postseason appearance. Washington is heading for the lottery for the fourth consecutive season, but it is gathering more buoyancy with each game played.
“Everybody is comfortable, confident in themselves,” said Jordan Crawford.
The winning ways weren’t even interrupted by the absence of Crawford — the team’s leading scorer since the all-star break — who was forced to end his season because of a sprained right ankle that wouldn’t heal.
The streak began after the Wizards suffered an embarrassing home loss to Cleveland in which Development League call-up Luke Harangody led a ragtag bunch to victory. Since then, the Wizards have become the only team to win in Chicago and Miami, dashed Milwaukee’s playoff hopes and helped the Charlotte Bobcats continue a slide toward possibly the worst winning percentage in franchise history.
They will finish the season at home Thursday against Miami, which will likely rest its star players – LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade – as it did last Saturday against Washington. Wittman scoffed at the suggestion that the success was somehow diminished since a few of the opponents were without their best players.
“We don’t have Booker. We don’t have Crawford,” Wittman said. “We got Nene who’s not anywhere where he wants to be conditioning-wise missing all the games he has. I mean, that’s the NBA. I just think it’s a positive thing for our guys to continue to play at a high level, no matter what the opposition is doing.”
Before the game, Crawford said the Wizards “owe Cleveland,” but it took them some time before they could truly put away the Cavaliers. Cleveland got the score to 87-77 when Manny Harris made a layup, but Wittman put Wall back into the game with 5 minutes 31 seconds remaining and he quickly restored order.
Wall drove inside, got fouled and made two free throws. Wall later stole the ball from Harris, batted it ahead and thought about going up for a dunk before Cavaliers reserve Omri Casspi closed in on him. He scooped up the ball, delivered a behind-the-back pass to a trailing Vesely for a dunk. Vesely was fouled and made the free throw to push the Wizards ahead by 17 and Wall flashed a grin.
“We’re not disrespecting no teams,” he said. “We’re going out there and playing the best that we can play and respect those teams and coming out with wins. We got what we need at every position and everybody is playing hard.”