The trajectory of an NBA team can change quickly, but after the bottom falling out in a loss at the Chicago Bulls last week and struggling to get past the Philadelphia 76ers, the Wizards may have figured out that they can be pace-and-space and a good defensive team simultaneously as long as John Wall can be a two-way player and he has this kind of supporting cast.
Sunday, he orchestrated a near-perfect game against Kyrie Irving with 21 points, 13 assists and seven rebounds in just 29 minutes of a 113-99 win vs. the Cleveland Cavaliers in front of the ninth announced sellout at Verizon Center this season.
"We're building some good things here from our defensive thinking. We got to continue to think defense again," Wizards coach Randy Wittman said. "It starts with John. It's no question. He's in a position in this league, you don't get many nights off. Kyrie Irving, the kid (Stephen) Curry who's not too bad. Somebody that if you don't have that mentally in-tuned to playing, you can get embarrassed. He's been locked in more recently. It starts with him. It trickles down.
"I've been a believer in that my whole life in this game. The guards are out front. The backline people see those guys all the time. If they're soft, not up pressure, they're going to be soft."
It's often said that Wall is asked to do too much for the Wizards (28-30), but that's true of most actual max players (not the Wes Matthews-, Enes Kanter-types). LeBron James, who didn't play because of rest, does all the heavy-lifting most nights for Cleveland and he has Irving, Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson.
It's the burden that most superstars not just have to carry but must embrace otherwise they're not superstars. But now that the Wizards' roster is the healthiest that hit has been all season, there's no excuse for Wall to be the reckless gambler that he was in a 109-104 loss at the Chicago Bulls on Wednesday, when E'Twaun Moore feasted. He has to balance aggression with discipline on both ends, like Chris Paul does routinely for the L.A. Clippers. Making 8 of 11 shots and holding his turnovers to three or less for the sixth time in seven games, Wall was at his best.
"LeBron is a big key to this team but they have guys, Kevin Love, Kyrie, J.R. (Smith) and those guys that can get hot," Wall said. "We did a great job pressuring them and moving the ball."
Take this version of Wall and give him more options in the form of Markieff Morris and Alan Anderson and the Wizards suddenly look not just a playoff team but a formidable one regardless of seeding if they're able to creep into the top eight.
Morris, who came off the bench again but started the third quarter for the second game in a row in place of Jared Dudley, was 4 of 8 for nine points, three rebounds and two steals. The Wizards were plus-22 with him on the floor. Anderson, still working his way back from left ankle surgeries, had five points, three rebounds, two assists and a steal in 15 minutes. They were plus-five.
"Markieff, he's been giving us that physical presence," Wall said. "We don't have to double-team as much. He can defend those guys one-on-one and he's giving us opportunities on the offensive side of the floor to make shots and put the ball on the floor and create opportunities for himself."
MORE WIZARDS: MORRIS ADJUSTING TO THE WIZARDS
The Wizards' best defensive unit appears to involve a lot of their reserves, including Nene and Bradley Beal who still is on a minutes restriction. An 11-2 run to start the third quarter extended them to a 74-56 lead and it grew to 26 at the end. Then by the midway of the fourth, the reserves pushed the lead to as high as 30. Wall, Marcin Gortat and Otto Porter didn't even play in the fourth. Neither did Morris as he switched roles with Dudley.
"We showed up," Anderson said. "Our defense created our offense. When we do that, we attack, we're tough to guard. We got a lot of scorers out there. It's tough to guard everybody."
The Wizards play the 76ers at Verizon on Monday, will have Tuesday off and travel to Minnesota for a game Wednesday. In 5 of 7 games since the All-Star break they've held opponents to less than 100 points. They've won all five.
"We don't have too many practices," Anderson said. "We got a lot of new pieces, healthier guys so any time we can't get more different rotations, different lineups and a feel for each other it's obviously going to help us out."
The Sixers went at Dudley with Nerlens Noel when they lost to the Wizards on Friday. That could put Morris, who was acquired in a trade at the deadline just a few weeks ago, in position to make his first start.
"I like the way we're playing. Our rotations, we know when we're going to come in, when we're not and how to play. That's going to help us progress," Dudley said. "The question is is when is Brad going to start, is Keef going to start? That's another adjustment we'll have to make with our last 25 games when they decided to do that. After that we can roll."