Like a lot of things, basketball works in mysterious ways. If Austin Daye’s buzzer-beating three-point shot Tuesday night had done what many thought it was going to do and rattled through the net, Washington’s 107-105 win over the Detroit Pistons would instead have gone down as one of the three most excruciating losses of a largely excruciating season (my top two being the 95-94 home loss to Miami on December 18, the day the Gilbert Arenas trade was officially announced and the Wizards blew a four-point lead with 17 seconds remaining, and the 100-99 home loss to Orlando on November 27 that was settled with a Dwight Howard baby hook).
But Daye’s shot didn’t rattle through the net. Instead, it rattled back out, leaving the Wizards players shaken by just how close a call they’d had. “I’ve never seen [a shot like that],” said John Wall after the game. “I’ve never seen one go all the way in like that before coming out.”
“We’ve lost enough tough ones,” Flip Saunders said ruefully after the game. “We deserve a little bit of luck. That last one was definitely pretty right on.”
It was a very good thing that it did, for obvious reasons. For one thing, it gave the Wizards their first three-game winning streak in almost exactly three years (April 4-9, 2008 to be exact). It also restored the full sheen to what was a brilliant fourth-quarter performance from Wall, who scored 16 points in the final stanza, including eight points from the foul line. Time after time, each Wizards possession followed the following script: Wall would take the ball at the top of the key and quickly square to the basket. If there was one man guarding the rookie, he’d go right past him. If there were two men guarding Wall, he’d split them and get to the basket, either getting an easy layup or getting to the line.
“John made big plays not only for himself but for other people,” Saunders said. “He had a couple of turnovers, we didn’t take care of the basketball well, but on the other hand we had 39 fast-break points.” In a game where the Pistons scored 58 points in the paint to Washington’s 54, outrebounded the Wizards 47-40, and notched 27 second chance points to Washington’s 13, the Wizards needed every single one of them.
Wall’s sublime gifts — like speed, quickness, and court vision — have been listed over and over again, but it is always something thrilling to see them on display in a competitive situation, especially in a fundamentally meaningless game like Tuesday night’s.
To take an example, early in the fourth quarter, immediately after a Detroit basket, Wall glanced back up the floor and noticed that the Pistons were slow getting back on defense. Taking a quick outlet pass, he streaked back down the floor for an easy two, well ahead of any defender. After Tayshaun Prince missed a three-pointer with 17.9 seconds left and the score tied 102-102, Wall took off flying down the court again. This time, he got help from JaVale McGee, who hit Wall with a perfectly timed outlet pass that sent the point guard away for a streaking dunk that put the Wizards up for good with 14.8 seconds to go.
““First we just wanted to come out and play hard, that was the main thing,” said Wall, whose stat line at halftime included a middling six points, two assists, two turnovers, one rebound, and one talking-to from Saunders. “Coach wanted us to re-establish ourselves as a team that plays hard. Second, half he really got on us, especially me and Jordan [Crawford] as rookies, because we weren’t playing hard.”
Andray Blatche, who put forth another solid effort with 26 points and 10 rebounds, appeared to have iced the game after making two free throws to put Washington up 106-102 with 9.3 seconds to play. But Daye knocked down a left-wing three-pointer with 2.9 seconds to play to make the score 106-105. The Pistons promptly fouled Wall, who could only make one of two foul shots (perhaps the only mistake he made in the final twelve minutes), but after Daye’s ill fortune, it didn’t matter.
The Wizards (21-56) will take their three-game winning streak to Indiana to play the Pacers Wednesday night. As they continue to play out the string, a minor debate has stirred as to whether this late-season surge will turn out to be the same sort of fool’s gold that last year’s season-ending improvement turned out to be. Last season, beginning with a 96-91 win over New Orleans last March 31, the Wizards finished the season by winning five of their last nine games. With five games left in this season, the Wizards will have to win out to match last year’s win total, but have already surpassed last year’s home win total of 15. In fairness, few would have anticipated that the Wizards would be so brutal on the road (3-35 entering Wednesday’s game), but that as much as anything else gives it a feel of a wasted season.
When called upon to explain how the team might carry over a strong finish to this season into a (possibly truncated) 2011-12 season, Saunders said, “A lot of guys who were good for us last year, we didn’t bring back [this year],” referring to the likes of Shaun Livingston and James Singleton.
“These guys,” said Saunders, referring to the likes of Blatche and McGee, “will be coming back.”
Based on recent performances, that might actually be cause for optimism on the part of Wizards fans. But for it to mean anything at all, they’ll need many more performances like the one John Wall turned in tonight. Good thing he has it in him.