With a 97-91 win over the Bobcats in Charlotte on Sunday evening, the Washington Wizards propelled themselves into the territory of the Cleveland Cavaliers and Chicago Bulls circa 2002-03, the last season that saw an NBA team have only three wins on the road, both mentioned teams having achieved the feat. Worth noting, however, that the Bulls finished 30-52 that year, the Cavaliers just 17-65. Also worth noting, the Wizards have three road games left — at Indiana, at Boston and at Cleveland — so three on the season might not be the magic number.
Cleveland was admittedly tanking to get LeBron James in 2002-03. Enough said. And that Chicago team, fresh off taking a young point guard in Jay Williams in the 2002 draft to pair with the promise of Tyson Chandler, Eddy Curry, Jamaal Crawford and Marcus Fizer, had all the hope in the world. It only took about eight more seasons with middling success and another rebuild for Chicago to become any sort of playoff threat. And if you EVER see John Wall on a motorcycle…
The Wizards are now 20-56, significant because they won’t tie a franchise record for least wins in an 82-game season at 19. They currently have the third worst record in the NBA after Cleveland’s 15 wins and Minnesota’s 17 wins, but with six games left, they are dangerously close to falling back in the lottery odds with Toronto at 21 wins, Sacramento at 22 and New Jersey at 23.
Jordan Crawford is quickly moving past the “shiny new tool” syndrome and into a special prospect category. Crawford’s style is unique, and he can score in a number of ways. He can score in big situations, he can score against more dominantly talented competition, and he can score while trying to run the Wizards as a rookie trying to learn point guard in the NBA.
Some of his numbers raise eyebrows, good and bad. But the fearlessness of his game, and his willingness to scrap on both ends of the floor, helps to cope with concerns that Crawford needs to temper his offensive game toward patience and see the floor within control. He is a rookie, he’ll get there.
Crawford does struggle getting around screens and keeping up as an off-ball defender, but boy is his offense dazzling, and it was on display against the Bobcats. One minute he was attacking the basket, switching to and finishing with his left hand. The next he was creating a direct lane to drive with a hesitation dribble that fooled everyone. Another minute, Crawford was hitting a big three to finally get the ball through the net after the Wizards secured three offensive boards on one possession … it takes a lacking conscious to hit that shot. By the way, all this happened in the first quarter against Charlotte, when he started out the gates with nine points.
Crawford finished the game with 23 points on 10-20 shooting and 2-5 from beyond the arc. In an odd twist, he hit three huge shots within a stretch from the 9:46 to the 6:46 mark in the fourth quarter in an unnecessarily necessary duel against Matt Carroll (yes, Matt Carroll, more on that in a second). However, all of Crawford’s shots in that run were of the ill-advised, possession-hijacking, too-much-dribbling variety. But he still got them to go down when his team needed it. Man, this kid is hard to assess.
Back to Carroll. The Wizards bumbled the end of the third quarter, allowing DJ Augustin to score five points in the last seven seconds to cut a once safe lead to 11 points at 76-65. In the first two minutes of the final period, Carroll scored seven points, compared to just one bucket from Wall for the Wizards, to cut the Bobcats’ deficit to six points. Overall, Carroll scored 14 of the first 16 Bobcat points by the mid-way point of the fourth. Yes, Matt Carroll was on a tear, and recent media darling Othyus Jeffers seemed to be the defensive culprit. Carroll finished with 26 points on 11-16 shooting off the bench; surprisingly, he was only 2-3 from deep.
Charlotte would, however, get no closer than five points, and the Wizards did just enough to outlast a team most would consider to have less talent, even with all Washington’s injuries. (Stephen Jackson, Eduardo Najera and Tyrus Thomas did not see the floor for Paul Silas’ team due to injury).
Crawford was the glue that held together John Wall’s inconsistent night with the currently motivated effort of Andray Blatche, who did much more attacking of the paint than not. Wall finished with 18 points, five rebounds, three steals, five assists and six turnovers. He had just four points, three assists and three rebounds at halftime, but bounced back with a strong third, scoring 11 points, much thanks to his quickness.
And Blatche, with 25 points on 10-19 shooting and 17 rebounds, continued to display that if you stay close to the rim, good things will happen. Hopefully this self-realized lesson sticks with him in the future. Although, worth pointing out that Blatche’s 61 points and 36 rebounds over the last two games came against very porous front lines. Still, against Charlotte, Blatche began the game with an early drive to the hoop, his knee high in the air a al Karl Malone, connecting with the crotch of Kwame Brown. And in the lane doing damage is where Blatche stayed. Five of his rebounds were offensive, and according to the ESPN.com shot chat, Blatche only took three shots from beyond 9-feet — he missed from 10 and 14-feet and made a jumper from 19-feet.
Blatche can’t jump. At all. He’ll never be an elite athlete. But if he uses his long arms to be relentless on the glass, often putting himself in the right position; and if he continues to hone crafty post moves that are Antawn Jamison-esque, the paint need not be such an intimidating place for him, as it’s seemingly been in the past.
JaVale McGee. He was the wild card who came up high pocket pairs just enough times to combat bouts with an off-suit 7-2 combo in his hand. At around the five minute mark of the fourth, McGee used his height to find Mo Evans under the hoop for a bucket. It was a crucial assist that put the Wizards past a precarious six-point lead. On the other end of the floor, McGee hustled to block a DJ Augustin attempt at the rim. He then ran the court as the Wizards sprinted the other way, only to get blocked himself by Dominic McGuire at the rim. McGee then soon-after countered that with one of his crazy, spinning, dribble bobbles, along with having ultimate responsibility that allowed Gerald Henderson to hit a layup to keep the Bobcats within seven points at the 4:21 mark. But McGee then finished a run suitable for only him with an alley-oop assist to Blatche (well, a layup alley-oop). Two assists within 65 seconds for McGee — his total for the game to go with 15 points and seven rebounds — might be some kind of record.
Each team only scored one field-goal in the last four minutes of the game, an indicator of the overall strength of the two foes. But a life in the lane for one — the Wizards — was the ultimate difference. Washington out-rebounded Charlotte 50-39 (16-7 on the offensive glass) and held a 58-36 point advantage in the paint.
Beating another bad or average team is a good step, as long as the lesson isn’t lost. It won’t be as easy to work inside-out against every team — not everyone rolls out an un-intimidating line of Kwame Brown, Dante Cunningham, DJ White, Dominic McGuire and Boris Diaw … with Diaw being the most imposing specimin (at least in his backside) — but the Wizards should realize that pushing themselves to be persistent in the paint will ultimately work in their favor. It’s building the habit which is key.
Regressions will occur and are tolerable instances of learning. A regression in the next six games could also be easy to see. At home on Tuesday, the Wizards will face a Pistons team that destroyed them in Detroit on March 6, they’ll see a likely-playoff-bound Pacers team the next night in Indiana that has been very physical with the Wiz Kids this season, and of course, Washington will face a Boston team fighthing for playoff positioning, twice.
A strong finish to the season would serve as a nice ending distraction to a year that has gone worse than expected by most. Sure, we all knew it would be a rebuliding year, but at the same time, both Ted Leonsis and Ernie Grunfeld were touting Wall/Arenas/Hinrich as one of the best backcourts in the league … we now see where those words got the team. This last stretch is for building individual confidence under the ability to succeed through team unity. What this last stretch is not for is constructing a false sense of hope. Because as Wizards fans should be conditioned to know, expect anything and don’t think it can’t get any worse, because it always can.