No team in the NBA has missed more games to injury than the Washington Wizards.
But John Wall has yet to contribute to that number, and Monday night in Chicago he proved that whomever the Wizards have at their disposal, as long as No. 2 is around they've got a shot to compete.
Wall spearheaded a lethal offensive attack, leading the way for the undermanned Wizards in a 114-100 win at the United Center. He finished with 17 points and 10 assists, shaking off a rough shooting night by engineering an assault against a susceptible Bulls defense that resulted in 31 assists and just nine turnovers.
"That’s who he is and he’s obviously the motor for us," head coach Randy Wittman said. "And when he moves the ball like that and sees the floor like that, that makes everybody better. It makes everybody’s job a little bit easier."
Shooting guard Bradley Beal missed his 16th consecutive game with another stress reaction in his right leg, and starting center Marcin Gortat was ruled out minutes before tipoff. Reserves Kris Humphries and Alan Anderson sat out with injuries, leaving head coach Randy Wittman with 11 healthy players at his disposal.
[SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]
But that's all he'd need. After the Bulls erased an eight-point first quarter lead the Wizards' bench responded with an 18-2 run that extended their lead to as many as 15 before halftime; the bench, led by Ramon Sessions and Gary Neal, scored 27 points alone in the second quarter, with those two contributing 18.
Drew Gooden, moved up in the rotation with Nene starting for Gortat, grabbed five offensive rebounds in the second half that resulted in 13 points as the Bulls attempted to narrow the deficit. Otto Porter, Nene and Garrett Temple all contributed 14 points, and Jared Dudley buried a pair of 3-pointer while at times playing power forward against the Bulls' much bigger frontcourt.
The Wizards bench outscored the Bulls' 47-32, and as a team they grabbed 13 offensive rebounds in what should have been an easy size mismatch for a Bulls team ranked No. 1 in rebounds per game.
It was a team win, which Wittman alluded to after the game. All 10 Wizards who played 13 minutes or more finished with a positive rating, while eight of them scored between eight and 17 points.
But the win was possible because of Wall, the Wizards' fearless 25-year-old leader who's kept the team afloat as different bodies enter and exit the lineup more frequently than any other team.
Wall could have squared up counterpart and fellow former No. 1 overall pick Derrick Rose and attempted to win it on his own. Instead he found four different players for assists in the first quarter alone, also taking eight shots but playing within the offense against a Bulls defense that two days earlier had allowed 120 points to the Hawks.
Though his shot wasn't falling in the first three quarters, the Wizards maintained their lead thanks to the trio of Nene, Gooden and DeJuan Blair out-working the Bulls' superior interior. That gave Wall just enough time to find his rhythm late. Following Doug McDermott's four-point play that cut the deficit to four, Wall hit a jumper, fed Nene for a layup and finished a fast break layup in a four-possession span to push the lead back out to 11, 98-87. He then found Nene for another bucket inside and closed the door with a 3-pointer from the top of the arc inside five minutes to play, prompting Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg to empty his bench.
"As a person he’s our beat, kind of like for the Bulls it’s Joakim Noah, for (us) it’s John," Dudley said. "When he’s got that energy and he’s flying around, it’s so contagious for our team. He has a lot of pressure on him right now because right now without (Beal), he has to do it. And it’s incredible what he’s doing for our team, putting us on his back."
Wall's been asked to do more each season after signing an $80 million extension in 2013. But as the face of the franchise, he's now been tasked with keeping the Wizards afloat in a surprisingly competitive Eastern Conference. He's fought through various injuries that he admitted could have kept him out of the lineup, playing in all 36 of the Wizards' games, understanding his importance to an already depleted group.
Losers in five of seven, on the outside of the playoff picture looking in, and on the road against a Bulls team that had won four straight at home, the Wizards faced a tall task. They needed Wall to lead the charge, and Wall needed his teammates to respond. They did, shooting 48.5 percent from the field and making nine 3-pointers against the Bulls, who lead the NBA in field goal percentage defense.
"I believe in these guys. If they’re open I’m going to give it to them, and if they make it they make it. If not, I’ll live with that result of making the right play. That’s the most important thing."
With the win the Wizards move to 17-19, two games out of the final playoff spot in the East. Beal could return this week while Gortat said after the game he didn't believe there was anything structurally wrong with his swollen knee. Wittman's group has won 44 and 46 games the last two seasons - both playoff appearances - and believe they'll be in prime position to make a similar run once they're back to full strength.
Until then, they'll have to make due with their 25-year-old All-Star leading whichever four players take the court with him on a given night.
"I think we're fine. We want to be higher (in the standings) than where we are right now," Wall said. "But you have a lot of injuries and a lot of teams are healthy. The main thing with us is just try to keep it close. Keep it around .500, above .500 if we can, and we'll get everybody back and hopefully get on a long streak and get it going."