WASHINGTON, D.C. -- As the horn sounded at the end of the third quarter, the crowd in the Verizon Center rose to its feet and gave the home team a well-deserved round of applause. Until recently, that third frame had become something of a mental hurdle for this team; they would play a strong half of basketball, then they would come out of halftime looking sluggish and disinterested.
Pardon my panicky demeanor, but I thought of that team -- the sluggish, disinterested one -- as the clock ticked away at the end of the first half. When the ball was poked out of Kevin Durant's hands, John Wall picked it up at the halfcourt line. With a four-point lead the Wizards desperately wanted to increase, Wall sprinted for a layup at the buzzer, and it didn't fall.
More Wizards-Thunder coverage
More Wizards-Thunder coverage
"This is a marathon. There are a lot of things that change throughout the year; we go through little trends," said Randy Wittman after the game when asked about the third quarter. "There's going to be periods coming up here where we struggle with certain things [and as] long we're just staying focused on what we're not doing and try to make that better, when something else goes bad, we'll look at the film and try to get that fixed."
The season may be a marathon, but the Wizards made a statement by sprinting past the Thunder 36-26 in the third quarter en route to a 96-81 victory on Saturday night. In what has seemingly been a season of statement-making, not even Kevin Durant and the white-hot Thunder could unsettle them after halftime. Heck, from their first basket of the game -- a Trevor Ariza layup right where he muscled right into Durant -- the Wizards never looked unsettled against OKC.
Wall said after the game that offensively and defensively, that was "probably the best" performance in "all four quarters" they've put up all season. With seven Wizards scoring seven or more points last night, Wall dropping 15 dimes, and the Thunder being held to a season-low-tying 81 points, it certainly seemed like their best effort all year.
"You got to give [the Wizards] credit," Durant said after the game. "They came out and played well. They did a good job on both ends of the floor."
Part of the win can be attributed to Oklahoma City playing their eighth game in 12 days and being on the second night of a back-to-back on the road, but Washington did a great job on both ends of the floor. They held the Thunder to nearly 25 points below their season average-much of which can be attributed to Ariza's defense on Durant ("It was like a mirror," said Wittman after the game. "Whenever Durant was on the floor Trevor was on the floor"). The Mirror helped hold the Slim Reaper to 8-21 shooting and helped force five turnovers.
This current team is night-and-day different than the one that put up a formidable-but-losing effort in OKC at the beginning of the season. Just in the last four weeks alone, they've jumped from 18th to ninth in defensive efficiency. And last night, they showed the Durant and the Thunder-whose 10-game win streak they ended-just how far they've come.
As Washington continues to play well against tough teams like Oklahoma City, Golden State, Phoenix, Miami, and Chicago, they also continue their ascent towards league-wide respect and credibility. Cue the free agency speculation with Kevin Durant.
Durant says he hasn't given "any thought" to coming to D.C. when he becomes a free agent in 2016, and why would he? He's leading the leading MVP candidate leading the best team in the Western Conference, and he's two years away from having to make a decision.
Still, it's not abnormal plan or dream a few years down the road. For a guy who reminisced about riding the Metro with his friends and family to Gallery Place-Chinatown to hang out at the MCI Center and who says "every part of D.C. is embedded in [his] heart," I find it a little hard to believe he's never envisioned himself playing for the home crowd in Washington.
"I grew up here. I've got 100 people coming to the game tonight," KD said before the game. "That should tell you how much I care for this city."
From the Wizards' point of view, it cannot be wholly unintentional that the team has only has four players under contract in 2016, the same year Durant becomes a free agent. The likelihood of him leaving OKC is unknown at best and very, very slim at worst. With every team with cap space in 2016 lining up to woo Durant, the Wizards would have to make quite the case to get him to uproot himself from a solid roster with solid championship potential and a solid front office-even if it is to play the role of hometown hero.
But things are certainly on the up and up. It wasn't too long ago when it seemed far-fetched for Washington to try to make a splash in free agency, but a top-10 defense and an All-Star leading a young core for the next few years has improved Washington's desirability. With all this talk about the District attracting millennials, why can't some of them be NBA players?
If Saturday's game was an audition by the Wizards for his services in 2016, maybe KD should give it a bit more thought.
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