A little more than a year ago, John Wall and the Wizards were off to a terrible start to the season and the point guard put pressure on himself going into a game with the Cleveland Cavaliers to play well. This year, he's doing it again but for different reasons before Monday's game.
"I was playing bad last year," said Wall, after a team-high 24 points, game-highs of 13 assists and five steals in Saturday's 105-91 win over the New Orleans Pelicans. "This time we're playing better. That's the best team you have to go get. They're the best team in the East. They've been to two straight (NBA) Finals. They won the championshiop last year so we know what the ultimate goal is. That's what we're trying to strive to get."
Wall had what was then a season-high 35 points and 10 assists in a 97-85 upset to hand Cleveland its first home loss, playing so short-handed that then-Wizards small forward Jared Dudley played center. Today, the Wizards (30-20) have won 17 games in a row at Verizon Center and have the motivation to keep that streak alive. But there's a bigger target on the table for them as the third-place team in the conference. They're just four games out of the No. 1 spot, and it'll be nationally televised to give them the exposure they'd lost with the departure of Paul Pierce in 2015.
Wall is playing the best basketball of his career, closing games in the fourth quarter like he did Saturday with the regularity of a true star.
The Pelicans sent a lot of attention Bradley Beal's way after he torched them Jan. 29 for 27 points on 11-for-16 shooting. Rather than trapping Wall, which is what most teams do first and foremost, they blitzed Beal. It worked as he only had 12 points and managed to attempt just 12 shots. That opened the floor for Wall, however, who was able to get to the rim and shoot 8-for-19.
"It's on, for sure," Beal said of Monday's matchup, changing his position after hearing Wall's words on the importance to him. "We're climbing in the rankings. We're going to keep climbing. They're a targeted team with a big red X on their back and we're coming after them, too. We're excited. We're amped up about it. I'm definitely excited because I didn't play the first game."
That was Nov. 11 when Washington lost 104-95 in a game they led after the first quarter despite being short-handed. Marcus Thornton, who has been active but hasn't played in 16 games, started for Beal because he had a right hamstring strain that would keep him out three games. No one other than Wall and Markieff Morris had a signfiicant impact. Thornton was 0-for-5.
Morris shot just 2-for-5 in the first half but keyed the Wizards' surge in the fourth quarter when he had nine points. His three-pointer with 15 seconds left capped the scoring Saturday. He had 18 points and presents a matchup problem at the power forward spot, with his ability to face up bigger, slower players and post up smaller ones.
A loss to the 2016 champions isn't any sort of death blow even at this point in the season. But it can send the Wizards' confidence to a new level and heights that seemed impossible given their tepid 2-8 start with Wall coming off surgeries to both knees May 5.
A 15-0 run closed out the Pelicans and the Wizards exited the floor in what had been a hyper-electric atmosphere. Beal was much happier with the turnout than after Thursday's win vs. the L.A. Lakers when he openly complained about feeling like a road game. Because of James, it could be a similar atmosphere.
"Bring 'em," Beal said. "It's going to be a lot of D.C. fans here, too."
With a dry wit, Morris added this: "To be a good team you've got to beat good teams. What's better than beating the best team in the East? Or the second-best team."