Nene acts like he's been there before, even though it's been a pretty long while. (Getty Images)Shortly after tip-off in Wednesday night's game between the Washington Wizards and Portland Trail Blazers at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C., the CSN Washington broadcast duo of Steve Buckhantz and Phil Chenier offered a lone "key to the game" for the hometown team: "Just win!"
It seems kind of odd to think that the Wiz wouldn't have at least tried popping that particular key into the ol' competitive ignition and giving it a turn at some point during their first dozen games, all of which ended with their opponents' hands raised, but after lineup-juggling that led fans to call for his firing, openly wondering whether he might be dumb and allowing his players to celebrate Festivus a bit early this year didn't bring home a W, coach Randy Wittman was clearly ready to try anything. Maybe ... just maybe ... this "Just win!" thing was crazy enough to work.
Sure enough, CSN's strat proved sound, as the Wizards' all-hands-on-deck, try-anything approach came through with an 84-82 win over the visiting Portland Trail Blazers on Wednesday night. The Wiz are winless no more; their record now stands proud and tall at 1-12.
It was, as you might suspect given the low and close score, something of a Wizard-y contest, with Washington digging themselves an early 15-4 hole before Buckhantz and Chenier could even offer their "Just win!" advice. As they've done all season, the Wizards opened with stagnant offensive possessions that resulted in contested midrange jumpers taken by guys (Emeka Okafor, Trevor Ariza, a struggling-with-his-stroke Bradley Beal) who can't really shoot, and having early difficulty containing the penetration of Blazers rookie point guard Damian Lillard, reacting to the resultant ball movement that led to open and makable shots for the likes of LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum. Nearly eight minutes into the game, the Wizards were down 11 and their game-opening unit of Okafor, Ariza, Beal, Kevin Seraphin and A.J. Price looked badly overmatched by the Portland starting five.
Luckily, Portland's bench had to play at some point, and they — as presently constituted — stink on ice. The Wizards' roster might not be great, but it's at least more balanced than Portland's is, and especially with a still-working-his-way-back-to-health Nene now available on the bench, gave Wittman a distinct advantage over Blazers coach Terry Stotts.
Washington's reserves clawed their way back to within four points at the end of the first quarter and did the bulk of the work in drawing the Wizards level at 43 come halftime, then watched as the recharged first-string took over the game midway through the third quarter, thanks to some crummy Portland offense (by my count, the Blazers missed eight jumpers in the last half of the third, as well as at least five layups) spurred, at least in part, by stepped-up half-court defense (for their myriad offensive struggles, they do rank 15th in the league in points allowed per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com's stat tool). The result: A 25-9 Washington run between the 6:56 mark of the third quarter and 8:52 remaining in the fourth that take a 15-point lead over the Blazers and stoke the "holy cow, this could be the night" fires.
The Wizards' backups — forwards Nene, Chris Singleton and Martell Webster, plus guards Shaun Livingston and Jordan Crawford, who had a team-high 19 points on 50 percent shooting and attacked the rim rather than settling for jumpers — outscored their Blazers counterparts 46-4. That second number is not a typo; Portland rookies Meyers Leonard and Will Barton hit one shot apiece, and that's all the scoring the Blazers got from their bench. (For good measure, the Wizards' second-stringers outscored the starters, too, 46-38.)
Of course, there was time yet for more Wizardry, in the form of a 16-0 fourth-quarter Portland run that saw the Wiz go scoreless for nearly seven minutes and gave the Blazers a one-point lead with less than 2 1/2 minutes left to go. But some final-minute heroics by Okafor — a block on Batum with the game tied and 56 seconds left, two game-winning free throws with 39 seconds left — and some bummy late-game Blazer execution (a travel by Lillard on their second-to-last trip, a scattered final possession that resulted in a missed J.J. Hickson jumper) sent Wizards fans home happy ... including one fan who needed a bit of postgame heroics from Okafor before it was all said and done.
After the game, Wizards forward Chris Singleton offered a pretty simple reason for being excited by the victory: "We don't want to go down in history as one of the worst teams ever." If the newly victorious Wiz can just turn that strategy into practical on-court action like they did with the CSN key to the game, Washington might be on its way to a nice little winning streak.
With the Wizards' next four games coming at the 10-4 New York Knicks, home for the 10-3 Miami Heat, at the 9-4 Atlanta Hawks and home for the 8-6 Golden State Warriors, I wouldn't hold my breath, but we can leave tomorrow's worries for tomorrow. Today, for the first time this season and the first time in 217 days, the Washington Wizards are winners. Embrace the day, District.