The Washington Wizards, led by a super-charged performance from John Wall, defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers 101-98 on Saturday night at Verizon Center, improving to 8-28.
“This is a game we made harder than we should have, but that’s the learning process,” Wizards coach Randy Wittman said. “I think I saw some packs of cigarettes falling on the floor again with our bad habits. We’re going to have to fix that.”
The game provided the matchup Wall wanted last week in Orlando, Fla., during the Rising Stars Challenge at All-Star Weekend. The first pick in the 2010 draft wanted a head-to-head battle with Kyrie Irving, who was last year’s top pick.
Wall didn’t get the chance. In the revamped rookie vs. sophomore format, Wall and Irving were teammates. Irving got the start, put on a stellar performance and won the MVP — just as Wall did in last year’s game.
But when Irving and the Cavaliers came to town, the matchup finally took place. Wall came out like gangbusters, shifting into top speed nearly every time he came up the court.
He made slashing moves to the basket and crisp cross-court passes. He made spin moves in transition and fancy layups and dunks. Living up to his reputation as a blur on the court, the point guard played with so much energy, at times he seemed almost out of control.
“It was a good matchup. He’s a talented point guard who shoots the ball very well,” Wall said of Irving. “He did a great job of leading his team and running them back into the game in the fourth quarter. He’s a talented player. I’ve watched him for a long time, and he watched me play. [I told him] just keep working, keep getting better. This is my first time playing against him.”
Wall scored 24 points on 8 of 17 shooting, with five rebounds and five assists. Irving finished with 20 points on 8 of 14 from the field and had six assists.
“That’s what we want every night,” Wittman said of Wall’s energy. “I thought in the Orlando game, he [Wall] had that same level of energy, and that’s what he’s got to do. He has habits that need to be broken, too. John’s been playing well. I like where he’s going in his decision-making.
“I don’t have to coach [him] anymore. John’s getting an understanding of where I want the ball, what plays to run without having to look over at me every time and say, ‘What do you want coach?’. That’s the growth for a point guard, and he’s made great steps in the last couple of weeks. I have to yell over at him if I want to change what he’s already called.”
Jordan Crawford got the start at shooting guard in place of Nick Young, who was out with a bruised right knee, and had a game-high 31 points. Roger Mason Jr. (11), Maurice Evans (seven), and Jan Vesely (nine) all made solid contributions off the bench.
But it was a tough return for Andray Blatche, who missed a month with a strained calf, and, as usual, heard a chorus of boos when he entered the game in the first quarter. The power forward looked tentative whenever he touched the ball and appeared to be afraid to shoot.
“I didn’t want to come out there and force nothing,” Blatche said. “Just play the game and try to help my teammates win and do the small things like hustle and rebounds and set other players up. That’s what I do. We came out with the win.”
Blatche went 0-for-3 and scored one point from the line but did contribute nine rebounds and five assists.
“I told him before the game, ‘You go out and play, don’t worry about results’,” Wittman said. “He’s got a lot of rust on him. It’s hard when you have a calf injury where you can’t do any running for six weeks and then come out for two practices and expect to be who you can be. For him to have nine rebounds and five assists, that’s a big part of our game.”
The offensive star for the Cavaliers was former Wizard Antawn Jamison, who scored 29 points — including 15 in the first quarter — and added nine rebounds and five assists.
Jamison was guarded by Vesely and Trevor Booker and spent the first three quarters teaching the youngsters a few lessons. Jamison shot over them, drove around them, went underneath them, essentially scoring at will. But the Wizards finally got the hang of defending him and held the power forward scoreless in the final quarter.
“We’ve got to find a way to play 48 minutes,” Jamison said. “Playing 36 or 40 minutes isn’t going to get the job done. It’s been our Achilles so far.”
In his return to the starting lineup, center JaVale McGee scored nine points and had 12 rebounds, but fell back into his worst habit of all, dribbling up the court like a point guard, to Wittman’s complete exasperation.
“That wasn’t the only pack of cigarettes that fell out,” Wittman said laughing. “Cigarette smoking is a tough habit to break.”