WASHINGTON — For the next two months, life without John Wall is the new normal for the Washington Wizards, and if tonight’s contest, against a legitimate championship contender, was a glimpse of how the going will be for Washington during this possible season-defining stretch, there might yet be a bright light at the end of the tunnel come the 2018 NBA Playoffs.
Of course, the presumption is that they will indeed hold on to a spot in the top eight of the Eastern Conference, which is much easier to envision after seeing the shorthanded Wizards take down the hottest team in the NBA, the Oklahoma City Thunder, 102-96, on Tuesday night in front of a charged crowd at Capital One Arena. However, snapping the eight-game winning streak of Oklahoma City’s came on the backdrop of the team finding out today that its All-Star point guard, Wall, will miss 6-8 weeks after an operation was performed on his troublesome left knee.
Though Washington had already been used to playing stretches of games without Wall this season, which includes when he missed nine straight games in late November and early December due to knee pain, yesterday’s breaking news about Wall’s prognosis was a perfect setup for a possible drop in the team’s collective mood, especially with OKC’s rampant vain of form invading the nation’s capital.
As it turned out, it was the team’s mood that helped the Wizards come away with one of their most emotional victories of the season, a win that came from the heart more than from any other applicable basketball skill.
“Our spirit. I think our spirit won the game,” said Wizards head coach Scott Brooks. “We fought. We battled. We clawed. How many times can you shoot 38 percent and have 27 assists? That means the ball was moving around and the shot distribution was great.”
Somehow, given the amount of star power that graced the arena even in Wall’s absence – from Russell Westbrook to Carmelo Anthony to Paul George and fellow All-Star Wizards guard Bradley Beal – the spotlight arguably shone the brightest on…Tomas Satoransky. The second-year NBA guard is now thrust into the starting lineup in place of Wall for the foreseeable future. His first start of the season (fourth of his career), coming this past Saturday in a 25-point win against Atlanta, was a sign of promise: 11 points, seven assists and a perfect 3-for-3 on three-point attempts.
Feasting on the Eastern Conference’s worst team is one thing. Going head-to-head at the point against the force of nature that is Westbrook, for a full 48 minutes, is a baptism by Greek fire. Despite his somewhat pedestrian-looking stat line – four points, 0-for-4 on field goals, five rebounds, six assists – Satoransky more than capably held his own on the defensive end against last season’s league MVP, as the Wizards’ defense held Westbrook to just 5-of-18 shooting while forcing him into seven of Oklahoma City’s 21 turnovers.
“Tomas played well,” said Brooks. “Tomas really battled, and he was trying to stay in front of one of the fastest guards in the league, and with help from his teammates, we did a good job on Westbrook.”
What epitomized Washington’s team effort tonight were the final five minutes of the game, which saw the Wizards end the game on a 16-6 run to overcome a late fourth-quarter deficit. Beal, playing much more of the role of playmaker at the point, assisted on back-to-back baskets by Otto Porter Jr. and Markieff Morris that tied the score at 90, and, after a Carmelo Anthony layup gave the Thunder the lead again, Morris slammed home an alley-oop pass from Satoransky to tie the game once more. Satoransky then came up with the biggest play of the game on defense, stealing a Josh Huestis pass in the lane with 40 seconds remaining and the game tied at 96 before being fouled. Satoransky hit both free throws to give the Wizards the lead for good, and four subsequent free throws from Washington accounted for the game’s final points.
There will sure be more games where the Wizards will not be able to achieve the level they reached on Tuesday over the next couple of months, as their well-documented struggles against teams under .500 – many of those losses with Wall in the lineup – probably is not a thing of the past as of yet. But the phenomenon of sports teams punching above their weight when a star player goes out might be what the Wizards experience now that Wall starts to recuperates from surgery. When he does come back, Washington might be a tougher, deeper, and more hardened team because of it.
“We know we are talented,” said Beal, who scored 21 points and had nine assists. “I think we’ve been saying that all year. It’s just a matter of us putting it together. It’s probably the best game we’ve played in terms of our physicality, our approach, our toughness throughout the game. That’s a great team in that other locker room, they have some ups and downs just as well as we do, but that’s still a great team. We did a great job coming out and controlling what we can control, focused on us and playing our style of basketball.”
Washington might be able to tear a page from Oklahoma City’s playbook, as the Thunder were barely playing .500 basketball before going on its eight-game winning streak, finally meeting the expectations of playing like the Western Conference contenders it appeared to be immediately after the offseason acquisitions of Anthony and George. Tonight, George scored 28 points – 20 in the first half – while Anthony finished with 19 points, though he did only make two of his 12 three-point attempts.
“When [Westbrook and George] get it going, it makes it a little bit easier for myself,” said Anthony. “I think we found that flow, found that rhythm. We still have that, just because we dropped this game tonight does not mean that we lost it all of a sudden. It happens, road game, tough loss, but we will get back to it on Thursday.”
Thursday sees the Wizards host another championship contender and a team that is playing as good of basketball as the Thunder have been, the Toronto Raptors. Without Wall, the task of slowing down the backcourt combination of DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry will be just as much of a challenge to the shorthanded Wizards as the one posed on Tuesday.
However, if Tuesday is indeed a sign of things to come for the Wizards, it might be another test they might just be able to pass.