The Wizards had a golden chance to get a worthwhile road win. They played a Cavaliers team missing Kyrie Irving and Anderson Varejao. They got one of John Wall's best games, a 27-point, 14-assist, seven-rebound effort that truly displayed his all-around potential. And ... it didn't matter.
You can blame horrendous second and third quarters for that. With Wall on the bench due to rest and foul trouble, respectively, the Wizards' offense crumbled. Wall sat for five and a half minutes in the second quarter and saw the Wizards' 13-point lead shrink to two. He sat for another six minutes at the end of the third and beginning of the fourth and saw the Wizards' three-point deficit swell to 11. That pretty much explains Cleveland's 95-90 victory.
It's especially frustrating because, contrary to what so many have written, the Wizards have won lots of games because everyone else lifted Wall up when he struggled. In this game, though, Wall was outstanding and nobody else stepped up. It all adds up to one of the most disappointing road losses of the season.
The beginning of the game sure went well, as Martell Webster nailed three three-pointers to give the Wizards an 11-0 lead. Later, the Wizards led by 13, and things seemed good. The ball was moving beautifully, the bigs, especially Emeka Okafor, were finishing and the Cavaliers couldn't create any offense.
Unfortunately, it was short-lived. The Cavaliers, playing their starters against the Wizards' bench after Byron Scottbenched his front-line players for their slow start, quickly cut into the lead, and Randy Wittman took FOR-E-VER to respond with a timeout to get Wall back in. Wittman finally called timeout with 6:38 remaining after the Cavaliers cut the lead to two. This is where you have to wonder why Wall plays the entire first quarter. Why not sub him out at the two- or three-minute mark, like most teams do, then bring him in at the nine- or eight-minute mark of the second quarter?
The Wizards largely played to a standstill for the rest of the half, but a late Alonzo Gee barrage gave Cleveland a one-point halftime lead. This was especially unfortunate because the Wizards wasted one of Wall's best halves. Wall still struggled with his jumper, but attacked the rim beautifully and maintained control of the ball. Wall ended up with 16 points and seven assists in the first half, and 10 of those 16 points came at the line. Unfortunately, besides Okafor, nobody else stepped up. Nene continued his listless recent stretch by submitting a 1-5, six-point, three-foul performance.
There wasn't a ton of movement in the third quarter until the end. Wall went to the bench at the 4:25 mark with his fourth foul, and Cleveland took advantage. Three missed three-pointers by Webster were a killer, and the Cavaliers eventually pushed to an 11-point lead by the end of the quarter. Without Wall's penetration, Webster's shooting and Nene's, well, everything, the Wizards' offense resembled a mouse running through a maze desperately looking for cheese. They tried hard, and kept thinking they were near the prize, but they were never as close as they thought.
The Wizards did eventually cut into the lead though by employing a small lineup and trapping pick and roll. Wittman went to Chris Singleton for the first time and plugged Trevor Booker in at center, and the Wizards went on a six-point run to cut Cleveland's lead to five. It was a nice adjustment that, given the team's stated desire to run, should be seen more often. Why not use the team's speed to try to force turnovers and get out in the open floor?
The Cavaliers eventually responded, though. Back-to-back buckets by Dion Waiters, who looked excellent all game, pushed the Cavaliers' lead to 10 with under six minutes remaining. As Cleveland went back to their starters, the novelty of the small lineup wore off. A three by Gee, his fourth of the game, pushed Cleveland's lead up to 12, and a horrendous turnover by Wall, his first really bad play of the game, led to a Waiters dunk and a 14-point lead.
The Wizards made one last run. Two free throws from Wall cut Cleveland's lead to five with 1:37 remaining, and the Wizards turned up the defensive pressure some more. A wild shot by C.J. Miles led to a fast-break dunk by Nene that cut the lead to three with 44 seconds remaining, allowing the Wizards to get a crack at tying the game with just one stop. But beautiful ball denial by Price on Waiters was ultimately wasted. Livingston and Nene got tied up on a rebound, and Livingston quick-jumped beautifully to steal the tap and get the ball to the Cavaliers. The Wizards were forced to foul and that was that.
The Wizards are in a rut, and it's time to focus on that rut. They've now lost six of eight, and the only two wins were a nail-bitter against a struggling 76ers team and a home victory over the lowly Bobcats. The injury to Bradley Beal certainly hasn't helped, and his mere presence should dramatically improve things, but the problems run deeper. Nene seems to be wearing down, the absence of Jordan Crawford has forced Price and Garrett Temple to play too many minutes and the lack of development of the four non-Wall picks in 2010 and 2011 (Jan Vesely, Booker, Singleton and Kevin Seraphin) sticks out like a sore thumb.
It'd be a mistake to view the team's 15-14 run since Wall's return as one stretch. The better strategy is to see the team's recent struggles as a sign that there's still a ways to go.
- Tristan Thompson has significantly improved since the Wizards last saw him. He's an absolute load on the offensive glass, relentless with his effort. He's also developing a post game and continues to grow as a very good shot-alterer defensively. (Can we use this term instead of "shot-blocker," by the way? It's way more accurate). Seeing him just makes me more depressed that the Wizards' four non-Wall players picked in the 2010 and 2011 drafts have developed so slowly. Thompson started really slowly, but the Cavaliers kept him in his role and he's slowly grown into one of the league's most promising young bigs.
- Okafor is a lot of things, but he is really bad at two elements of the game that hurt this team's style: high-post passing and outlet passing. The former is a problem when teams overplay Nene in the post. The latter is a problem when the Wizards want to run.
- There have been many games where A.J. Price has bailed the Wizards out with solid play. This game was not one of them. His inability to create offense off the dribble was a killer, because the Cavaliers' pick and roll coverage stinks. Without a guy to take advantage, though, it doesn't matter.
- On one level, I'm happy to see Wall take shots with confidence. Better than hesitating, of course. But if the shot isn't falling and you're getting to the hoop fairly easily, keep driving instead of shooting.
- Nene's game just keeps falling off since his high in late-December and early-January. At this point, it's on the Wizards to figure out more creative ways to use him. Try him in the high post with Wall executing dribble hand-offs. Have him run side pick and roll inside the three-point line. Try running Wall in the post with Nene screening him to come out.
- It's interesting that Trevor Ariza barely played in the fourth quarter, when the Wizards made their run. Ariza is certainly touted as one of the Wizards' best defenders, and on the surface, it's odd that he sat. But the Wizards still played stifling defense without him, relying on Webster at small forward and Singleton at power forward to pressure pick and rolls. Ariza's useful, but clearly, he might not be essential. (Also: I can't blame Wittman for sitting him when things were going so well).