WASHINGTON -- After spending the previous two days pushing and pleading for his team to show maturity and growth from characteristic lapses to start the second halves of games, Washington Wizards coach Randy Wittman found himself Friday night in a frustratingly familiar place.
Just 48 hours earlier, the same scenario played out at the start of the third quarter, with point guard John Wall spearheading the sloppy play and sulking that gave the Dallas Mavericks an opening to storm ahead for a double-digit lead and eventually a 105-102 victory.
Wittman spent that night and the next day constructively criticizing Wall’s competitive maturity. He challenged his team to grow up and learn how to prevent one bad stretch from leading to another and ultimately costing themselves winnable games.
Yet again, the Wizards were in the midst of a turnover-induced meltdown against Cleveland.
And again, an opposing team had converted those miscues into a string of unanswered baskets.
So again, Wittman tapped his shoulders as he stormed onto the court to break up the action. Only this time, unlike on Wednesday, Wittman’s actions spoke louder than any words he considered delivering.
“I called a quick timeout again,” Wittman said Friday of the pivotal moment before Washington regrouped to shut down LeBron James and the Cavaliers in a 91-78 victory. “Nothing really was said. It was a 20-second timeout. I just let them talk among each other. They knew that this was not the start we wanted. So I thought after that, we got going a little bit.”
Two days after Wall was called out and took responsibility for the Dallas loss, he shouted back with one of his most complete games of the season. It was a transformation from third-quarter scapegoat on Wednesday to third-quarter catalyst Friday, having scored 17 of his game-high 28 in that period.
Wall relished the opportunity for redemption on several levels. In addition to his stretch of turnover problems Wednesday, Wall also missed 12 of his 17 shots against the Mavericks. That kept him in the practice facility for an extended shooting workout that lasted nearly an hour after Thursday’s practice.
Another motivating factor, although Wall repeatedly downplayed it publicly, was his matchup with point guard Kyrie Irving, who was selected No. 1 overall a year after Wall was taken with the top pick in 2010. Wall has felt overlooked and underappreciated nationally when compared with Irving.
And it was also an opportunity for Wall to shine in a nationally televised game and return some of the same lessons on patience and process to the star-studded but struggling Cavaliers that James, then with the Miami Heat, used to routinely offer to Wall during tough stretches for the Wizards. The Wizards (8-3) are off to their best start in 40 years, but they lacked a signature victory over a quality opponent after losing to Miami in the season opener and recently to Toronto and Dallas.
Considering the state of disarray the Cavaliers are in right now amid a 5-6 start, it’s debatable how much of a statement victory Friday’s game was for the Wizards. But it didn’t lack for luster amid spotlight.
“I feel like, yeah, it’s a statement,” said Wall, averaging career-high marks with 19.5 points and 9.1 assists per game this season. “We lost to Toronto pretty badly. Dallas, we felt like we let that game get away. And we haven’t beaten a big-man team, everybody says. So this game was pretty big.”
But Wall insists the win only resonates and boosts the Wizards' profile as a legit contender if they can follow it up in the second game of a back-to-back set Saturday in Milwaukee.
“When you win this game, you have to back it up,” Wall said. “You win this one and then lose [Saturday], and you’re back to [critics] saying, ‘Are they really that or really this?’ If you want to be a legit team in this league, you’ve got to go right back out and win these type of games.”
Wall personified the three characteristics Wittman hoped to see from his team this week: resilience, toughness and maturity. It all resonated in Wall’s play, specifically in the third quarter. Wittman’s timeout was called about two minutes into the third quarter after Wall and Paul Pierce committed turnovers on consecutive possessions and Cleveland cut a 15-point deficit to nine.
Wall’s 3-pointer out of the timeout pushed the lead back to double figures, and his two free throws later in the quarter gave Washington its largest lead at 74-58. He shot 7-of-9 in the quarter and added two steals, two rebounds and an assist in the most productive quarter by a Wizard this season.
Wittman left his players to discuss among themselves the necessary corrective measures needed during that 20-second timeout. But what was actually communicated during that break?
Depends on which player was asked.
“I was telling my teammates to be aggressive,” Wall said. “If they have open shots, take them. If you miss them, we can live with that. But if we’re living with turnovers and bad shots, that lets a team get into the open court. We moved on. We failed quickly and moved on. Against Dallas, we’d get a turnover and hold our head [down]. Tonight, we just kept it moving, said it was our fault and kept playing.”
It took Wall about 30 seconds to deliver that quote, about 10 more than allowed during the timeout.
Bradley Beal, who had 12 points and five assists in his second game back from wrist surgery, suggested the message among players was about remaining focused and avoiding a repeat from Wednesday.
“We were able to stay poised,” Beal said. “It kind of got out of hand a little bit. We called a timeout and regrouped. We talked about the mistakes we made on the floor and what we needed to do better. And it stopped right there and we turned it around.”
Pierce, a 17-year veteran who has been a calming influence in those moments during his first season in Washington, couldn’t remember exactly what was said.
“I don’t even know,” Pierce said. “It was like three timeouts during that quarter. I’m so pumped with adrenaline right now after the game, I can’t even remember. But I’m sure it was something about our defense. It was the defense. That’s our identity. We have to be a hard-nosed defensive team that can shut down teams when they come in here every night. We’re taking steps in the right direction.”
Friday was more than a step. It was more like a significant leap defensively.
On the heels of giving up 105 points to the league’s top-scoring team, the Wizards held the Cavaliers, who are fifth in scoring, to their lowest output of the season. Cleveland shot a season-low 38 percent shooting from the field, were outscored 50-34 in the paint and 40-9 off the bench.
Add the 24 points the Wizards scored off 19 turnovers by the Cavaliers, and it was a dominant display.
“We were really locked in with five guys, for the most part, all night,” Wittman said. “We were aggressive pretty much all night. John started it, obviously, bouncing back. He wasn’t happy with his last game against Dallas and stepped up and came back. He was really aggressive from the start.”
Pierce senses Wall had an extra edge when he entered the game.
By the time it was over, it was clear Wall had proved his point.