Well, it wasn't pretty, but it was a road win against a Toronto Raptors team that's playing excellent ball right now. Thanks to some stifling defense and just enough offense, the Wizards came away with a 90-84 win north of the border. That's not going to go in anyone's DVD collection, but once again, the Wizards held off their opponent's charges late after taking a lead early.
Things definitely got a bit scary late. John Wall had one shot blocked, missed another shot badly and nearly turned it over at midcourt with under a minute left. But when he needed to deliver, he stepped up, rubbing off a Nene screen and beating Amir Johnson to the hoop going right for the game-sealing layup. He made sure to attack quickly after the ball was swung to him from the opposite site, a strategy that always is more successful than clearing out and trying to go one on five.
This definitely wasn't one of Wall's best games before that. Dogged by foul trouble early, he shot just 3-11 and struggled again to find room against Toronto's wall of defenders. But others stepped up, namely Bradley Beal, who scored 20 points on 13 shots while supplying the team's offense in most of the first three quarters. The Wizards' defense did the rest, holding everyone not named DeMar DeRozan down in a standout performance.
The Wizards broke open an incredibly ugly game with a stretch of fast-break points midway through the second quarter. Forcing Raptor turnovers, they got the ball ahead and managed to get easy hoops, which is huge considering how bad their half-court offense has been. A wild fast break that ended with a John Wall layup gave the Wizards a 12-point lead, and they led 40-32 at halftime.
The Raptors' rally continued into the third quarter. A couple DeRozan jumpers and some bad Wizards offensive possessions allowed Toronto to cut the Wizards' lead to four early in the quarter. The Wizards rallied back and pushed the lead to seven, but Toronto's offense was much more in rhythm. The Raptors kept feeding DeRozan and he kept delivering with fadeaways and other mid-range jumpers. The Wizards usually played good defense, but DeRozan just elevated over the top too easily on both Beal and Martell Webster.
A three by Lowry tied the score at 49, but the Wizards responded. They slid Beal off a flare screen, and the rookie delivered with a three of his own to untie the score. Toronto's offense went into a drought as DeRozan's shots stopped falling, and by the time they recovered, the Wizards were up nine at the end of the third after an 14-5 run. Beal had nine in the quarter, including an excellent slashing move to the rim that ended with a beautiful reverse layup.
The Raptors charged forward early in the fourth quarter, but thank god for A.J. Price. The Wizards' point guard hit a couple YOLO shots -- a 18-foot bank shot, then a 25-foot contested three -- to hold off Toronto's charge. The Raptors got cold again, and a Booker tip-in put the Wizards up 11 with eight and a half minute remaining.
Toronto kept charging, largely on the strength of DeRozan, who kept canning mid-range jumpers and isolating against the Wizards' defenders. But the Wizards kept responding. Nene, largely quiet for most of the game, made a big play, spinning baseline and finishing with an underhand reverse scoop shot as Johnson fouled him. Nene's free throw gave the Wizards a 79-67 lead with 5:29 remaining.
Once again, though, the Wizards couldn't pull away. Price committed a horrendous turnover, leading to a DeRozan runout and a three-point play that cut the Wizards' lead to seven. Wall came in after that, but it might have been a possession too late. The Raptors' crowd was very much into the game.
Nevertheless, the Wizards responded with two huge possession: a curl play for Beal out of a timeout that led to a Nene layup, and a drive that Ariza eventually put in after nearly turning it over. There were some nervous moments afterwards but Wall finally put things away for good with that game-sealing layup.
This is a big win, folks. The Raptors had won six of seven prior to this one and had been playing as well as anyone in the league right now. To do this on the road, a place where teams with much better records have perished recently, is a huge accomplishment. There are warts, of course, including Wall's own inefficiency as a scorer and Nene's rough night, but it's becoming clear that there's something about this mix that just works.
- One of the biggest plays of the second quarter: Wall throwing the ball over his shoulder to Beal on the break for an open jumper. (It was a toe-on-the-line 2, but it should have been a three). I wonder if Wall knew that Beal hadn't gotten a shot off to that point and needed to see the ball go through the rim. Beal hit two big shots right after that and seemed much more engaged from that point forward.
- Big performance from Price off the bench relieving Wall and his two fouls in the first half. He frustrates me a lot, and an upgrade that can shoulder a heavier load and play minutes at both guard positions is needed, but considering the cost, Price has exceeded expectations. In this game, he was able to get things going with a couple mid-range pull-up jumpers in transition, and his pull-ups were big midway through the fourth.
- The Raptors have a ton of length up front, which bothered Okafor and Nene. I know the Wizards run a post-oriented offense, but this might have been one of those games to use Okafor in pick-and-pop situations rather than isolated one-on-one against Jonas Valanciunas, as he was throughout the second quarter.
- I like Trevor Booker's energy, but someone please teach him how to move his feet to contest screen and roll. He can't seem to slide and keep his hands up at the same time.
- I continue to like how the Wizards don't put Beal in too many isolations. Build him up slowly and all that. Better to keep him on the move and let him succeed there to gain some confidence. He's clearly effective doing that, so why change things? If you need to get him involved late in games, run actual plays rather than 1 on 5 ISOs.
- Wall is REALLY reluctant to shoot jumpers late in the game. He has to stop hesitating if that's the position he's in, because it just makes things worse. When he is forced to isolate, that's often his only play, as teams are closing down the lane to prevent him from getting to the hoop. Getting him involved in a quick-hitter, like the Wizards did on his game-sealing layup, would be a smart strategy. Perhaps have Beal handle a bit and hit Wall curling to the top of the key, rather than vice versa?
- Rudy Gay was terrible tonight. I know the Raptors have been succeeding despite his problems, but it's hard to see what he really adds to a team besides clanking mid-range jumpers. He can't explode to the rim consistently despite his frame and he's not much of a spot-up shooter. I guess he takes the primary defender away from DeRozan, but soon teams will learn to switch their assignments. I think the Wizards dodged a bullet.