Marcin Gortat quickly found John Wall after rebounding an Alec Burks miss, and the Wizards point guard moved swiftly in the open court to attack the Jazz defense before it became set. Attacking Trey Burke in the paint, Wall wrapped the ball around his back and found a wide open Bradley Beal that gave the Wizards a 52-51 lead. It was a lead that the Washington Wizards would not relinquish again, as they defeated the Utah Jazz 93-84 to move to 11 games above .500 for the first time since 2005.
After a sluggish first half that saw the Wizards score just 37 points against a weak Jazz defense, it was fair to wonder if the Wizards had overlooked this young, but talented Utah squad.
"One of the guys here in the locker room said, let's treat the first half like it was a shootaround and treat the second half like it's a basketball game," Gortat said about the locker room during halftime. In the third quarter they did just that, outscoring the Jazz 30-16 and looking like the team with one of the best records in the East.
The thing about a shootaround though, is that it is just that: players getting a chance to shoot. Too often in the first half, the Wizards didn't even manage that on offense. By committing 12 turnovers on often careless plays, the Wizards let the Jazz players off the hook for their sometimes questionable shot selection. For Wizards coach Randy Wittman, this problem was one he told his players to work on avoiding in the second half: "I said we got to take care of the ball and get shots every time. I don't care if the shots go in, I care about getting a shot because we turn it over that gets them in the open court and you can't get your defense set."
In the third quarter, the Wizards flipped the script, frequently pushing the ball after Jazz misses and forcing seven turnovers. This gave the Jazz the unenviable dilemma of trying to stop a streaking Wall to the basket or preventing him from finding open shooters in transition.
For Wall, it was correcting these first half missteps that led to the big third quarter that provided the difference in this game: "I think we just started getting stops. We didn't let them get a lot of offensive rebounds, we. didn't turn the ball over... That's what this team is. We pride ourselves on not turning the ball over, and just trying to get a shot every time down and move the ball as much as possible."
The numbers represent Wall's analysis of the difference between the first and second half. The Wizards, who gave up six offensive rebounds in the first half and committed 12 turnovers, held the Jazz to one offensive rebound and only gave the ball away twice. They also forced seven Jazz turnovers in the 3rd and managed 10 assists in the third after just six in the entire first half.
On a night when the Wizards' starting bigs didn't contribute much in scoring, the Wizards ability to get out in transition in the second half made the difference on the night. Nene and Andre Miller gave the Wizards a scoring punch off the bench that the Jazz just couldn't match, as the Wizards bench outscored the Jazz bench 33-17.
With the Wizards now 5-1 against the West, and 12-2 in the friendly confines of the Verizon Center, they are starting to find themselves in a new position: not as the hunter but as the hunted. As John Wall said postgame, teams like the Jazz "are kind of in the same position we were in a couple of years ago. When we would play against a good team we would want to beat them and get that recognition, so we understand what teams are going to come after us with."
It's something the Wizards will have to get used to. And with a young and hungry Timberwolves team led by former Wizards coach Flip Saunders coming in on Tuesday, it is something that they will continue to keep in mind. Paul Pierce noted the target that is now on the Wizards' back from teams lower in the NBA pecking order: "We have to expect that, especially from the lower seeded teams, and we have to be up for the teams at the top. We have to be ready for these teams that are not at the top and are not as good as we are."
It's a new feeling for this franchise and this fan base, being the better team who other teams are gunning to take down. On a night like this, it's a good feeling to have.