INDIANAPOLIS — In this city, where his initials were short for Apple Juice, A.J. Price always sought but never received the opportunity to run his team. He backed up T.J. Ford, Earl Watson, Darren Collison and George Hill without complaint, even when he nearly fell completely out of the rotation last season.
The Indiana Pacers cut ties with Price last summer after three seasons, forcing him to find a new team, the Washington Wizards. John Wall’s left knee injury has given Price a chance to show his worth, but when he faced his former team on Saturday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, his only concern was getting a win.
Price did his part, handing out a career-high 14 assists and scoring 12 points, and the Wizards were in position to tie the game in the final seconds. But an indecisive Trevor Booker short-armed a hook shot from 11 feet and the Wizards had to settle for their fifth consecutive loss to open the season, 89-85.
“It has to change for us at some point,” Price said. “We’re playing too hard, playing too well for us not to have any wins right now. We have a never-say-die attitude. We never quit. As long as we do that, it has to turn for us.”
In the locker room after the Wizards’ loss to the Milwaukee Bucks the night before, Price expressed to his teammates how much beating Indiana would mean to him. The Wizards came out prepared to have his back. But in a tightly contested game in which neither team led by more than seven points, the Wizards had too many lapses to finish the job. They had just 12 turnovers for the game but six came in the fourth quarter, when the team made only five field goals and scored 13 points.
Rookie Bradley Beal and veteran big man Emeka Okafor led the team with 17 points apiece but the Wizards fell to their third defeat by six points or less, with late-game execution posing a problem in each instance.
“Is it Groundhog Day? It’s Saturday, the 10th? It’s been that way for a month,” Coach Randy Wittman, an Indianapolis native, said with a laugh after Washington’s ninth consecutive loss at Indiana. “We’re right there again. Just kind of the little things. These guys are busting their tails. They fight. They claw. Now we just have to play smarter.”
Beal, who was cleared to play after the NBA determined that the hard foul on Bucks guard Monta Ellis that led to his first ejection didn’t warrant a suspension, asserted himself offensively, reaching double digits in scoring for the third game in a row. The Wizards trailed 87-80 with less than two minutes remaining before Beal helped bring his team back in the game with a three-pointer. But he remains in search of his first NBA win.
“I hate losing. I’ve never lost no more than four in a row,” said Beal, who lost four in a row as a freshman at Florida last season. “But I can’t beat myself, I can’t beat my teammates up about it. We’re going to keep competing. We’re going to keep battling. We’re going to get over the hump.”
Okafor managed to string together consecutive solid performances, scoring his season high for the second night in a row. But he was most effective on defense, where he helped limit Roy Hibbert, the Pacers’ all-star center and a former Georgetown standout, to seven points on 3-of-15 shooting. Okafor recorded a block for the fifth straight game, swatting a Tyler Hansbrough fadeaway that led to a shot-clock violation for Indiana.
“Tale of a young team,” said Okafor, who made 8 of 18 shots. “You never want to get blown out, because it’s not fun to play in and you have other issues going on, but when you’re a play or two away, it hurts but you know you’re right there.”
Okafor followed Beal’s late three-pointer with a short baseline jumper that brought the Wizards within two points with 36.4 seconds remaining. Pacers forward Paul George (game-high 20 points) missed an open three-pointer from the right corner, then Hibbert missed the tip-in, and Price grabbed the rebound before quickly calling timeout.
Wittman drew up a play for Beal, with Jordan Crawford as the secondary option. George cheated and went over the top taking out Beal, and Crawford drew a double team that left Booker (10 points) wide open underneath.
“He kind of was surprised I passed it. He wasn’t ready,” Crawford said.
Booker saw Okafor open under the basket but hesitated, thinking he didn’t have enough time to pass. He then shot the ball, releasing it from the palm of his hand, and it hit the front of the rim.
Price already has five starts with the Wizards after having just three starts with Indiana, where he said he left behind the Apple Juice nickname. He was confident and in control on Saturday, setting up his teammates, exploiting his opportunities to score and he didn’t commit any turnovers. Price had more assists and points than the Pacers’ point guard combination of Hill and D.J. Augustin.
“Did we win? That’s all that matters,” Price said. “I’m not a numbers guy. I don’t feed into percentages. I don’t care about none of that. Wins and losses are the only things that matter. I played well, but we lost, so it all goes for naught.”