The performances had been exhilarating, the game film intimidating for the Washington Wizards as they prepared for Oklahoma City Thunder all-star forward Kevin Durant. The District native arrived in his home town Saturday playing the best basketball of his career, and the capacity Verizon Center crowd, in Durant’s thrall, was waiting for him to make memories.
The Wizards wanted to avoid being the next victim on the Durant barnstorming tour, which included 10 straight wins entering Saturday. Forward Nene best explained Washington’s approach: “First of all, pray. Second, have good luck. And the third, do your best.”
Hard to dispute the success of that strategy. In what has become a bizarre tradition in these parts, Durant once again was on the losing end against the Wizards, who beat the Thunder for the third straight time in Washington, 96-81. The victory over Oklahoma City, owner of the second-best record in the NBA at 38-11, continues the Wizards’ recent run of success against teams with winning records — they also have wins over Miami, Golden State and Phoenix.
For the first time since Durant's rookie season, the Wizards were able to counter the arrival of a superstar with an all-star of their own. In his first game since being named an all-star reserve for the first time in his career, John Wall overcame a horrific first half to score 17 points while handing out 15 assists — one shy of his career high — as the Wizards improved to 23-23 and 11-11 at home.
“It was great. It was a humbling experience for me. I still got my team goals ahead of what my accomplishments are, individually. And when I went out there, I was just trying to play for my team and get a big win,” Wall said about his latest recognition. “I think about it when I get home by myself, but when I step in this locker room, it’s these other 14 guys I got on my team.”
Wall didn’t have a field goal in seven attempts through the first half, missing a point-blank layup at the end of the second quarter that had Coach Randy Wittman shaking his head. “I told him, either change your shoes, change your uniform, or do something. Something is not right,” Wittman said.
Wall decided to place the blame on his red Adidas, swapping them for a white pair. He had an electrifying second-half performance, highlighted by a one-handed, fast-break dunk over Durant, his friend and summer workout partner. Wall shot 7 of 11 in the second half and also matched his season high with six steals. His last steal came when he slapped the ball away from Thunder point guard Reggie Jackson, then raced up the floor for dunk.
“It was big for me,” Wall said of the dunk. “When you get a dunk like that, it sparks your team.”
Durant and the Thunder came to town as the hottest team in the NBA, fresh off an emphatic 25-point victory over the Brooklyn Nets one night earlier. But in their first game at Verizon Center since splitting a four-game West Coast road trip, the Wizards won the game on the defensive end, forcing the Thunder into 21 turnovers, which resulted in 23 points, and limiting it to just 40 percent shooting and 38 points at halftime.
Trevor Ariza had the challenge of trying to slow Durant and he more than held his own against the NBA's leading scorer. Durant scored 26 points but missed 13 of his 21 field goal attempts. He had a streak of 30-point games snapped at 12 the night before against the Nets.
Ariza kept him under that mark for the second straight night, hounding him throughout, contesting nearly every shot and using his length to make Durant work to get open. Ariza blocked Durant’s jumper on one possession and came back on the next possession to step in front of Durant to draw a charge. If Ariza’s performance were strictly on the defensive end, it would’ve been impressive, but he also made three three-pointers and finished with a team-high 18 points.
“Just stay in his grille, try to make him take tough shots. Try not to give him no easy, easy looks. That’s about it,” Ariza said of his defense on Durant. “He was on fire, he was on a roll. I was just trying to be aggressive on both ends. I know he’s going to get his, but I don’t want him to rest on the defensive end. Just try to attack him and make him play honest.”
Marcin Gortat contributed 14 points and 14 rebounds and Nene (17 points) buried a rare three-pointer to provide the final touches on a night that saw him got into repeated dust-ups with Thunder center Kendrick Perkins. Nene picked up a personal foul in the first half for balling his hand into a fist and chopping down on Perkins when Perkins placed his hand on his chest, and he also got tangled with Perkins as they wrestled for a loose ball in the second half. They were jawing at each other the entire night.
“That’s what that dude can do. He can do nothing else,” Nene said of Perkins. “He got zero points. Let’s quit talking about him, that’s nothing.”
The Wizards avenged an earlier 106-105 overtime loss in which they squandered a late 10-point lead and allowed Durant to score 33 points and make a tying three-pointer to force an extra frame. Wittman didn’t want to take any chances of blowing another lead against the Thunder and rode his starters to the finish, even after Thunder Coach Scott Brooks decided to put his backups in with the Wizards leading by double digits late in the fourth quarter.
“You got to give them credit,” Durant said. “They came out and played well. They did a great job on both ends of the floor.”