Against Cavaliers, Wizards Find Meaning of Basketball Life From Deathbed
Jordan Crawford does a little bit of everything…
Before tip off, I was curious how the Wizards would respond in a game that had all the trappings of an emotional let down. Gone were the Heat and the insanity they always bring to an atmosphere. Gone was the underdog mentality, facing a Cleveland Cavaliers team that had won three fewer games than the Wiz this year. And of course, gone was John Wall, suspended after trying to put his fist through Zydrunus Ilgauskas’s rib cage against Miami Wednesday night.
How would the Wizards respond in a game that, even without John Wall, one might actually expect them to win?
Said Flip Saunders, “in the pregame talk, after we got done, I told one of the assistant coaches ‘man I don’t feel that energy in that room tonight.’”
But Flip’s guys came through for game time.
In their 115-107 win Friday night, the Wizards showed exactly who they’ve become over the last couple weeks. They played poorly at stretches, individuals made a few wacky decisions, and some old bad habits refused to die. But they also competed and rode a high work rate and intensity level, even through the dark patches, allowing fans to appreciate the bright spots.
Although Andray Blatche (36 points and 19 rebounds) and Jordan Crawford (20 points, 10 rebounds and 11 assists) turned in superlative statlines, the number that jumped out to me during and after the game was the Wizards’ decided advantage in the paint. Fueled by a monster night on the offensive glass from Blatche, who grabbed 16 (some his own misses), the Wizards out-rebounded the Cavaliers 56-38 and pulled in over 50-percent of their own misses.
The disparity was necessary to offset a Washington attack that lacked any outside fire power. The Wizards only shot eight three pointers, instead relying on big scoring nights from JaVale McGee (25) and Blatche to pound the Cavaliers in the paint. In fact, 49 of the Wizards’ 94 shots came within 10 feet of the basket.
Although they struggled from the line, Crawford’s ability to feed Washington’s post players and orchestrate offense for himself and others out of the pick-and-roll kept the team humming. Defensively, however, there were plenty of ugly let downs. On multiple occasions, the Wizards big men failed to rotate or take the proper help angle against the Cavaliers pick-and-roll attack. When he wasn’t casually launching three-pointers, Baron Davis was able to knife inside, draw help and find the rolling big man. (Side note: I wonder if Baron is sad because he misses so many three-pointers, or if he misses so many three-pointers because he’s sad.)
But despite these mental lapses, the Wizards kept their energy at a high level throughout almost the entire game. Without veteran starters Rashard Lewis, Josh Howard and Nick Young on the floor, the Wizards played likc a bunch of scrappy guys fighting to keep their place in the League. Because aside from McGee and Blatche, that’s what was on the court Friday night. Each player invested in the competition itself, and the Wizards seemed dangerously close to solidifying an identity of fearlessness and effort.
While talent level predicts that they’ll continue to lose more games than they will win over the remaining two weeks of the season, Wizard faithful have to be pleased with the way Crawford, Othyus Jeffers and Mo Evans are pushing the rest of the team.
The only person likely happier than Washington fans is Flip Saunders. I saw Flip a couple months ago and he looked worn down, emotionally exhausted. And that was after a home win against Utah. But he looked like Nixon in 1970 last night — tan, rested and ready.
It’s clear that Saunders, who is known as a teacher, is enjoying his new pupils’ attitude. Said the coach after the game, “We keep on working with players and the mistakes we saw [earlier in the year] become fewer and far between. We’re starting to see that with some of our guys. It’s tought to be patient at times. No matter what happens, our guys come into practice with a good attitude, and they come in to work, and I give a lot of credit to our assistant coaches.”
Perhaps he was thinking about McGee, who scored on Ryan Hollins using a number of under-control, simple maneuvers like a physical drop step and a driving hook that did not take him flying across the lane. Said Saunders, “I told him, ‘You’re going to get touches, but try not to do too many crazy things.’ He’s going to always have one or two, but try and be a little more patient.”
McGee did do some crazy things, as expected. The difference in his personal play was probably marginal, but even he seemed imbued with a greater sense of competitive purpose on the court. That spirit is coming from guys who are in unlikely position on the depth chart.
After the game, Saunders glowed:
“The personality of some of the guys we have right now — Mo Evans, great competitor, Jordan is a great competitor, the guys we’re brining in, O. (Jeffers) — they’re the kind of players that you want to go out there with, because you know they’re going to fight tooth and nail to the end. It will make other guys who are talented guys play above their level, even Jordan. I mean, Dray’s caught a lot of criticism from people that he doesn’t play hard. But when you are playing with three guys like that, they almost force you to play at a higher level.”
Now, if only there were sixty games remaining instead of six.
This season feels a bit like a heart-wrenching dramatic movie. Our protagonist has lived through a lot, the fall and departure of an icon, the disappointment of great expectations, a life seemingly unfulfilled. Now, with IV tubes and beeping monitors around the Wizards’ season, a greater understanding has been reached. Finally, the team seems to have grasped onto a love of competition that could sustain a fan base in the face of repeated drubbings.
It’s far, far too late for Washington this season. But hey, there’s a lesson to be learned here, if the team hangs on to some of these underpaid overachievers. The Wizards may not always have enough to win, but they certainly have more than enough to compete.
Notes and other thoughts:
- Of Andray Blatche’s 16 offensive rebounds, eight were from his own misses. He was 8-15 on shots at the rim.
- Jordan Crawford played an exceptional second half and seemed much more comfortable running the team in that period. In a critical stretch late in the fourth quarter, Crawford assisted on three straight baskets — two to McGee underneath and one on a kick-out to Yi Jianlian to ice the game.
- Crawford also led the Wizards on the defensive boards, snagging eight.
- Othys Jeffers scored 13 points on seven shots for a .714 Effective Field-Goal Percentage.
- The Wizards are now 17-21 at home, and 2-35 on the road.