WASHINGTON D.C. - John Wall saw something he hasn't seen much of this season at the end of the Wizards' 107-105 win over the Pistons. As he came off screens, he saw the Pistons' big men trying to trap and control him, when normally they would be dropping off and daring him to shoot his still-developing jumper.
That served Wall just fine. As the Pistons tried to contain him in vain, Wall took the game over, scoring 16 fourth-quarter points to lift the Wizards to a 107-105 win. He sliced through the Pistons' defense, scoring all of those points either on shots in the paint or on free throws, and he punctuated the win with a breakaway jam to give the Wizards the lead for good.
"Certain teams trap me to try to get the ball out of my hands, and some teams do a hard show," Wall said. "Coach told me that once they do that, just go with a full head of steam at the guard. That's what I've learned. I'm still learning, but I'm figuring out ways to pick it apart."
It wasn't all about beating the traps, of course. The Wizards scored 30 points in transition, and Wall was particularly deadly at that in the fourth quarter. Coach Flip Saunders also said he doesn't always like Wall running pick and roll, because he thinks he is better at creating off the dribble on his own.
"Our bigs have a tendency to always run out and set screens, and I don't always want to do that. I'd like to keep our bigs around the basket and let John penetrate on his own, and he can either find them low or they can get some offensive boards," Saunders said.
But make no mistake about it: Wall's pick and roll game has improved. The obvious reason is that he has more experience running it, with a year of experience under his belt. Another possibility, though, is that he finally has a good set of complements to make it happen. Running a good pick and roll requires five guys in tune, and the Wizards may finally have that.
Andray Blatche, for one, looks healthy again. Blatche had 26 points and 10 rebounds, his third straight outstanding game. It's tempting to compare this stretch to his strong finish last year and assume this is fool's gold again, but Saunders said that would be a mistake.
"Last year, he may have gotten a little frustrated if he didn't get the ball," Saunders said. "Now, he's doing the things that he's supposed to do defensively, and he tried to rebound. He knew that we would come back to him, and he made some big plays down the stretch and made free throws."
Then, there are the Atlanta newcomers. Mo Evans had a really good game last night (20 points on 13 shots), while Jordan Crawford (17 points on 17 shots) did not, but both provide much-needed traits for this roster. Evans provides the closest thing to the "3 and D" small forward we keep talking about. He has shooting range, will play his role and will not try to do things he can't do. He also plays his butt off every night, even if he isn't playing well.
"Guys look to me a lot for confidence, for encouragement and just for the experience that I have," Evans said. "It's much needed. For example, with John [Wall] and I, they kept setting a pick and roll with Tayshaun [Prince] and [Will] Bynum. We communicated and we figured out how we were going to make adjustments with that play. I think that's what we've been lacking, that communication."
It's one of the little things Evans has provided recently. His future is a bit cloudy, because he's a free agent that will be 33 at the start of next season, but the Wizards could absolutely use a guy like him next year, even if it's not him.
The future looks a lot clearer for Crawford. Last night was one of those nights where the idiosyncratic nature of his game shines through. He took a lot of poor shots and made a lot of poor decisions, yet the rest of the team feels a level of comfort with him out there. Wall seems to like that Crawford provides another playmaker of sorts, either for himself or for others, and echoed what his coach said before the game about how Crawford provides a more diverse array of skills than Nick Young.
"Nick's a straight, great scorer," Wall said. "Jordan's a scorer, and he can be a playmaker at times. That's the big difference. He's different and a better playmaker."
All these factors are playing a role in the Wizards' first three-game winning streak in three years. It's reasonable to wonder about whether the winning streak means much of anything when it comes during a meaningless stretch like this. Last season's Wizards finished relatively well last season, only to flop out of the gate at the beginning of this year. The same could very easily happen next year.
Saunders, however, believes that won't happen.
"Some of the guys that were involved in our success this year, we didn't bring back," Saunders said, specifically mentioning Shaun Livingston and James Singleton. "The difference is, most of these guys are going to be coming back for us."
A three-game winning streak against Cleveland, Charlotte and Detroit isn't much, but with the same pieces likely in place next year, there's no reason they can't carry this strong play over to whenever the next NBA season begins. That is, once this season ends.
"It's just like, you're a man at the end of the day," Crawford said. "You don't want to just go out there and lose. It ain't what nobody is about, and it ain't what I'm about. It's not about the future. It's about winning right now."