The key moment in Tuesday's big win vs. the Cleveland Cavaliers came at 7:58 of the second quarter, with the Wizards ahead 39-36 as LeBron James left the floor. Coach Randy Wittman did something he had never done in his fifth year in his charge -- and resorted to it again in a crisis situation in the fourth quarter.
He trotted out a lineup with the tallest player standing 6-8: John Wall, Bradley Beal, Garrett Temple, Otto Porter and Jared Dudley.
"We came out with great energy. Our pace. I thought John was incredible in that first half," said Wittman of Wall, who scored 21 of his season-high 35 points in the first two quarters of the 97-85 victory. "I had some lineups out there tonight that I don't know if I would've dreamed about. Our guys did everything that they possibly could."
By the time the clock struck 5:24 for James' return, the Wizards had their first double-digit lead at 46-36 in what would balloon to as large as 22. It ended their four-game losing streak heading into tonight's game vs. the Los Angeles Lakers at Verizon Center (CSN, CSNmidatlantic.com and NBC Sports Live Extra, 6:30 ET).
Part of why Wittman did this is because he didn't have many live bodies available. Nene (left calf), Drew Gooden (left calf), Gary Neal (groin) and Alan Anderson (left ankle) couldn't play. Ryan Hollins, acquired Monday as a free agent, wasn't ready.
But that extra small lineup, with Porter and Dudley playing in the middle, wreaked havoc because of its ability to spread the floor on offense and make up the size deficit with its quickness and IQ to know when and where to help defend.
J.R. Smith, James Jones, Richard Jefferson, Kevin Love and Mo Williams were confounded. The deflections, the active hands, the gang rebounding, the diving for 50-50 balls turned the tide heavily in favor of Washington (7-8).
Porter's forced a missed running shot by Smith which led to an immediate attack and score by Wall on the other end. Good overall team defense forced Williams to take a difficult and contested shot to be the 24-second clock that wasn't close.
Wall followed that by missing a jumper but it was Beal and Temple hustling to create an extra possession. Temple lunged to tap the ball out to Wall on the perimeter and then he made a lateral pass to Beal who found Dudley wide open for a made three-pointer.
Tristan Thompson entered the game for Jones as the Cavs tried to use the rebounder to create a bigger size mismatch in the paint. That didn't work, either. He had the offensive rebound on the next play after a miss by Smith, but Beal tied him up to force a jump ball. Porter recovered the tip and passed to Beal, and that produced an open-court attack by Temple for a flip shot in the lane.
Cavs coach David Blatt had seen enough and by 5:24 he went back to James. It didn't matter as the Wizards' were in a rhythm on both ends with Beal making up for his lack of shooting (6 of 19) with grit and grind (six assists and nine rebounds), Wall shredding Cleveland's interior (14 of 24 shooting) and James having his shots altered by the help of Marcin Gortat and multiple perimeter defenders like Beal, Porter and Temple forcing him into mistakes (nine turnovers).
"You have to give Washington credit," Thompson said. "They played a different style we haven't seen in a long time in terms of going with five guards, pushing the tempo and really just junking up the game and making us play basketball we haven't played all season."
Because of Gortat's fifth foul, the Wizards went back to the small lineup with 9:15 left in the game but this time James was on the floor with Love. It didn't matter.
With Sessions briefly occupying Beal's spot, the pesky defense of Temple and Dudley annoyed James. Temple used an escape dribble to get away from James' close out to draw a foul and then recovered to help Sessions to draw an offensive violation on him on a drive to the basket.
Matthew Dellavedova threw a skip pass to an open Jones, but Porter closed him out on the arc. Jones tried to send a bounce pass to James who was cutting to the basket but Temple rushed to front him to prevent the catch and force another turnover.
With Thompson back in place of Love, Dudley slipped a screen on the Wizards' next play for an open mid-range jumper. Porter didn't get the rebound on Smith's shot, but he prevented Love from getting it for a putback. When Love got the ball in the mid-post and backed down Dudley on a second-chance opportunity, Porter's double-team forced a near airball that led to Wall's three.
"Zero," Dudley said about his practice time as a center. "It was my first time playing five. You don’t know how it’s going to go. Any time they had Kevin Love at the five you didn't want to put Gortat in at that time because of pick-and-pop and you didn’t want Kevin Love to get going. We just say to them, we were fronting, making them throw over if that’s how it is and we’re not going to give you a layup. LeBron, we fouled a couple times, take the ball out of bounds, make them have to skip the ball over cross court and have John or Brad. They're so athletic (they can) close out. That’s what we’ve done."
Thompson tried to help Smith only to be beaten badly by Beal on a baseline drive that put him at the foul line. Speed and ball-handling trumped size.
By time Gortat returned with 2:47 left, an almost full seven minutes after he first exited, a 14-point lead which had grown as large as 19 in his absence, ultimately was only trimmed by two at 95-83.
The game already was over, the losing streak dead and a new identity revealed.