After beginning the season 2-8, the Wizards have since leveled out in convincing fashion, to the point that they are now just one game under .500 after beating the Indiana Pacers on Wednesday night. For about 20 minutes after the game ended, the Wizards held a playoff spot for the first time since the season began. It was brief, but a small sign of encouragement for a team marred by injuries and depth issues for much of this season.
But like many basketball teams, the drop-off is generally obvious even if just one of their best players is missing. This season they are 0-4 without either John Wall or Bradley Beal in their starting lineup. With them both in the lineup, they are now 15-12. Take one of their key cogs out and disaster will sometimes follow.
That was not the case on Wednesday in a game that may have shown how far the Wizards have come in some respects since their disappointing start to the year. Yes, they had won a game earlier this season, against the Celtics, after Beal went down mid-game with an injury, then a right hamstring strain. But the way they rallied after Beal left with a sprained right ankle in the first half against the Pacers was a collective effort worthy of a team in playoff contention.
"When you win a game with one of your best players down, everyone is going to have to play well," head coach Scott Brooks said. "When some guy is out, the next guy has to step up and give us some minutes. I thought Marcin [Gortat] was really good at protecting the rim, he was rebounding, John obviously was phenomenal tonight – nearly a triple-double – getting to the basket, getting fouls. But everybody chipped in. Otto [Porter Jr.] made a big shot off Kelly’s [Oubre Jr.] pass from the corner to the slot. But when you win a game with one of your best players down, everyone is going to have to play well.”
Wall was the leader of that effort. He was just one assist short of a triple-double, ironic in the sense he's one of the best passers of his generation. He finished with 36 points on 11-of-19 shooting from the field, 12-of-13 from the free throw line and 11 rebounds. It was Wall's 19th double-double of the season, his 10th in the month of December and his seventh in his last eight games.
Wall scored 19 of his points in the second half, capped by a timely layup with 39 seconds left in the fourth quarter. Wall took off from halfcourt and first split two defenders - Jeff Teague and Thaddeus Young - then challenged Paul George at the rim to beat him with a finger roll. It was another big shot from a player with a growing reputation of making them late in games.
"He's done that in a lot of these close games that we've won. He's made the right plays, whether it's shooting or passing the ball to open players," Brooks said.
Wall just felt like he had to be more assertive without his backcourt running mate beside him.
"For me, I was kinda just still trying to be aggressive, but get everybody involved," Wall said. "Coach said ‘He would be back and was just getting tape’ but then like a couple minutes went by and I said ‘What is he doing? Is he coming back?’ and he said ‘No, he’s out.’ I think took a mindset approach of being more aggressive and trying to get to the basket.”
The Wizards pulled out the victory, but it did require Wall to play 39 minutes. That's just two days after he logged 42 minutes against the Bucks. That's never ideal, but especially for a player who had surgery on both knees in the offseason. But the Wizards needed him to fill the void for one night and he certainly stepped up.