John Wall walked though a tunnel at Verizon Center on Wednesday night, adjusting his bow tie as he spotted Washington Wizards Coach Randy Wittman smiling after a game for the first time this season. Wall walked up to Wittman, mussed up Wittman’s salt-and-pepper mane and shouted, “Woo-hoo!”
Wittman laughed with his injured point guard and patted his hair back into place. But before walking away, Wall grabbed the back of Wittman’s shirt and mimed yanking an imaginary weight — center Emeka Okafor would say, “oppressive force” — from his back.
After a franchise-record 12-game losing streak to open the season, the Wizards showed that winning can be an excruciating experience as well. They blew a 15-point fourth-quarter lead and put fans at Verizon Center through an unnecessarily suspenseful finish before defeating the Portland Trail Blazers, 84-82.
Elation followed, but it was muted. No streamers fell from rafters. No champagne celebrations in the locker room. Just the realization that the Wizards (1-12) still have the NBA’s worst record — but at least they are no longer winless.
“It’s about time,” reserve swingman Martell Webster said. “Should’ve been here.”
Okafor made two free throws with 39. 1 seconds remaining that served as the difference as the Wizards avoided the ignominy of extending a losing streak that had gone on for far longer than anyone associated with the organization wanted or expected. Fans didn’t even know how to handle the victory, as one exuberant supporter nearly fell over a railing in an attempt to slap hands with Okafor.
“Needed to get that first one. Starting to forget what it felt like,” Okafor said with a laugh after scoring six points with eight rebounds. “I think getting that first victory and things will start to steamroll. We’ve gotten close several times and I think now that we’ve actually won whatever oppressive force that has kept us from winning has been lifted and it’ll start to come a little bit easier.”
The Wizards have had numerous close calls on their path to becoming the 11th team in NBA history to lose its first 12 games. They ran off the court last week in Atlanta believing they had finally won only to have officials review Webster’s game-winning shot and overturn it. Three days later, they missed free throws in regulation and overtime that could’ve led to a victory over Charlotte. But through every letdown and painful defeat, the Wizards kept chipping away, even as some fans showed up at the arena wearing paper bags on their heads and they became a league-wide laughingstock.
“I told them, ‘We just broke through the ice,’ ” Wittman said. “I’ve lived in Minnesota 15, 17 years. This ice was four or five feet thick but it is broken through now. This is obviously a good win for us. In any way, however it came down.”
Jordan Crawford scored a team-high 19 points and Trevor Ariza had 14 points for the Wizards, who led 79-64 with 8 minutes 53 seconds remaining. But holding on to the lead would be a greater challenge than building it. The Trail Blazers responded with a 16-0 run over the next seven minutes, getting three-pointers from Nicolas Batum and rookie of the year front-runner Damian Lillard, who each scored 20 points to lead Portland (6-9).
The Wizards abandoned the ball movement that helped them get the lead, taking contested jumpers early in the shot clock and getting careless with the ball. They also failed to keep J.J. Hickson (15 points, 19 rebounds) off the boards, as he fought off Kevin Seraphin for a dunk, then made a free throw to tie the game at 79.
Crawford then blundered when he grabbed a rebound and made an ill-advised pass to Ariza that was intercepted by Batum, who was fouled and made one of two free throws to give Portland the lead. Crawford responded with a quick three-pointer to put the Wizards back up 82-80 before Trail Blazers all-star forward LaMarcus Aldridge tied the game with a step-back jumper.
Batum tried to give Portland the lead again, but Okafor blocked the shot, then Price found him cutting to the basket on the other end. He calmly made both free throws and the Wizards needed two defensive stands to claim the victory, with Ariza finally recovering the ball on Portland's last attempt to tie the game on a lob on the final play.
“I think we know that it’s just us. We see that. Everybody talks about us, so it’s just us players and coaches,” Ariza said. “We did things different by just trying to have pride for ourselves and each other.”
The celebration began with a half-second remaining. Reserve Chris Singleton secured a rebound and called timeout. Before the Wizards stepped back on the floor, Seraphin leaned down and pressed his forehead against Webster’s. The pair smiled.
“It was like, finally,” Seraphin said. “When you’ve got something on your shoulder for a long time, everybody now feel good. We have to keep going. We win but now we have to get second win, third win, and keep going.”