The Washington Wizards earned their 5th win of the season last night and 2nd overall against the Toronto Raptors with a 111-108 overtime victory in the nation's capital.
Tonight marked a lot of new things for the Wizards. I noticed a new attitude, new sense of direction, and most importantly, an established identity.
From the moment I walked on to the court at Verizon center yesterday afternoon, I noticed that things were very different. No, it wasn't 80's throwback day in the media room nor were the coffee and soda machines out of place. Assistant coach Sam Cassell was leading shooting drills.
Yes, Wizards fan, you read that correctly. The team was practicing their shooting.
My only question is, what took so long?
What took so long for the Wizards to be able to come out and establish offensive dominance early on? What took so long for Trevor Booker to get rewarded with points after all his hustle plays? What took so long for the Wizards to earn their 5th win? And finally, what took so long for Mo Evans to get some playing time? I was starting to think the poor guy was the highest paid cheerleader on the team.
The Wizards rank near the bottom of the league in field goal percentage (29th) shooting an abysmal 41%. Clearly there is room for improvement so coach Cassell took the initiative. Instead of having the forwards, centers and big men work on their low post game, coach Cassell and the rest of the assistants had the players work on catching the ball in stride, stopping, and taking a 20 foot jump shot. They moved around and shot the ball from different spots on the court, but for the most part, the team worked on shooting and free throws for much of the pre-game. Man oh man did it make a difference.
First and foremost, the Wizards as a team finished shooting right under 49% for the game and shot over 50% for most of the game and shot 73% (30-41) from the line. Coach Wittman consistently emphasizes "team basketball" and that is exactly what Wizards fans got. Four players on the team finished in double figures lead by John Wall who finished with a game high 31 and 7 boards, followed by Nick Young with his 29, Jordan Crawford with 13 off the bench and most notably, Trevor Booker with 19.
"We really needed it. He's been playing at an extremely high level", said Randy Wittman. "Trevor always gives us a lot of energy when he's in the game. Rebounding, blocking shot and making all the big hustle plays", John Wall added.
Booker's high energy was evident from the start as he got the crowd involved early on with a massive tomahawk jam early in the first quarter over Aaron Gray. His aggressive defense kept the Raptors offense off-balanced for much of the game, he was able to shoot the ball well and was an effective low post presence for the Wizards offensively. For 3 quarters of the this game, I literally could not believe that this was the same Wizards team I've been watching all year. They shot the ball well, didn't start off horribly (in fact, they scored 29 and 25 in the 1st and 3rd quarters), and they were shooting over 50% from the field. After 36 minutes, this was easily the Wizard's best game that they've played all year.
Then came the 4th quarter.
Just as well as this team played for 3 quarters, they played equally as bad in the 4th quarter. After trailing by as many as 15 points in the 4th quarter, the Raptors were able to claw their way back in to the game and forced overtime. The defense broke down, the Raptors were able to hit some crucial 3 point field goals and before you knew it, the game was going to overtime. The Wizards defense returned to form during the extra session by not allowing the Raptors to make a single field goal during OT and the rest, as the say, is history.
The young Wiz Kids showed an incredible display of perseverance and patience in tonight's game. They never panicked when Toronto was making their comeback and they didn't resort to the "selfish" basketball that coach Wittman is trying to get rid of. Instead, the team was able to regroup and pull out the victory. I can't imagine how mentally hard it is for a young team to give up a nearly 20 point 2nd half lead only to come back and win it in overtime. While Trevor Booker's performance was impressive, make no mistake about it, John Wall lead this team to victory. Wall's will and determination fed off on the rest of his teammates and they matched his intensity late in the game. John's incredible display of leadership was evident late in the game when the Raptors came back and took a 1 point lead. On the next possession, the former #1 overall pick was able to come right back down the court, get the basket and re-establish the momentum for his team. He put the rest of the guys on his back and willed the team to victory.
The Wizards success relies on the maturation of John Wall. Not only his ability to score and orchestrate the offense but the ability to make the rest of his teammates better. Tonight was a great example of his ability to do both. As a journalist, it was awesome to see but as a fan, it was incredible to witness.