Defying the odds and most expectations, the Washington Wizards gave the star-studded Miami Heat a run for their money Wednesday night at the Verizon Center, twice cutting their deficit to one point early in the fourth quarter. But ultimately, the 94 total points scored by LeBron James (35 points), Dwyane Wade (33 points), and Chris Bosh (26 points) proved too much to overcome as the Heat (52-23) defeated the Wizards 123-107.
As heartening as the performance was by the Wizards (18-56), it’s hard not to wonder what might have happened if Washington’s star rookie point guard John Wall hadn’t gotten himself thrown out of the game with 8:48 to go in the first half and the Wizards leading 37-36.
The incident began innocuously enough, as Zydrunas Ilgauskas grabbed a loose ball at the top of the key and was defended by Wall. As Ilgauskas turned to face the basket, the Wizards rookie got right into the Lithuanian’s personal space, and Ilgauskas responded by nudging Wall twice with his right elbow. Wall took a futile swipe at the ball as Ilgauskas brought it over his head, an action which left the Miami man’s midsection exposed. As Wall turned to face up to Ilgauskas, television replays showed that the Kentucky alum pursed his lips, picked a spot, and let fly with a right cross to Ilgauskas’ ribs at the same instant that the 7-foot-3 center reached out with his left arm to shove Wall further back.
That exchange was followed by clutching and grabbing from both combatants, a brief sideshow flurry of action between JaVale McGee and Juwan Howard, and the appearance of both Flip Saunders and Erik Spoelstra to corral their two teams. In the end, Wall, Ilgauskas, and Howard made an early exit, a trade that –for all the fight the Wizards showed–still greatly benefitted the Heat.
The rest of the game was tightly called. Jordan Crawford, who took over for Wall at the point guard spot and finished with 39 points, picked up a technical foul for running his mouth after a made basket in the second quarter, while Andray Blatche received the same penalty for protesting a third-quarter foul called on him.
Meanwhile, Wizards fans carried out their usual passion play against James, booing him when his number was called during player introductions, and rarely stopping for the rest of the night. They roared their approval when the King himself was T’d up with 4:12 to go in the fourth quarter after calling for a clear path foul on Maurice Evans (in fairness to LeBron, Evans had gone over James’ back to stop a fast break chance), and they roared even louder when he missed both subsequent foul shots and earned the 18,916 in attendance free chicken sandwiches.
But those would be the only two shots James would miss in the whole final quarter, as he scored 13 points in the final 12 minutes to effectively salt the game away. If there was one maddening sequence that summed up the game’s close-but-not-quite aspect, as well as LeBron’s arrogant, brilliant, and petulant performance, it was this: after James hit a spot-up three-pointer to make the score 101-94 with 5:48 to play, James leapt in front of an attempted pass by Crawford and deflected the ball high into the air. The two players converged, collided, and Crawford went down. No foul was called, and James stayed on his feet and took the ball the rest of the way for a breakaway dunk, hanging on the rim for a good three seconds after his finish. (No technical foul was called here.)
“Sometimes you have what are called 50-50 calls, and I didn’t think we got those calls tonight,” Wizards coach Flip Saunders said matter-of-factly. “It happens, especially with a young team.”
James’ 34th and 35th points of the night, a turnaround spot-up jumper with 53.7 seconds left made the score 118-104, but the result was already a formality.
Ultimately, and this was especially the case without Wall, the Heat had too much quality for the Wizards to overcome. on the night. A further case in point: JaVale McGee brought the crowd to its feet with back-to-back rejections of Bosh and Wade early in the third quarter. Undeterred, Miami attacked McGee a third time, and on this occasion, Bosh got McGee in the air with a simple up-fake, slipped inside, and laid the ball in. Miami just kept pushing and pushing, and ultimately the Wizards couldn’t keep pace.
There were many pious mutterings after the game in the Wizards’ locker room that the game represented a positive step forward for the team.
“I’m proud of the way we competed,” Saunders said.
“I was impressed with everybody’s fight tonight,” said Evans, speaking, perhaps both literally and metaphorically.
It was, to be sure, a good performance, but the Wizards have suffered lots of brave defeats and even pulled off a couple of surprise victories this season. Invariably, the trouble has lain in the efforts that followed those defeats, which have more often than not been turgid, uninspiring, forgettable, or downright horrible.
Anyone who’s had to deal with young people knows that growing up isn’t done in a moment or a single night. It’s a gradual process, full of fits and starts and invariably frustrating. McGee articulated something like this point of view when he said, in response to the “Did this team grow up tonight?” question by saying. “I can’t say that, because last time we played them [February 25, a 121-113 loss in Miami] we gave them a better run. We seem to play to the level of our competition for whatever reason.”
It’s not known whether the Wizards will be without Wall Friday night against Cleveland (all flagrant-2 fouls like Wall’s are reviewed by the NBA before a decision is made on further punishment). But with or without their future, the Wizards are still facing a team that they should beat and beat handily. If this team really has turned a corner, we will see them complete it Friday night. Anything less, and Wednesday night’s effort will go down as another anomaly, another blip on a season-long radar screen.