The Oklahoma City excuse for losing in Washington was ready made last year. They’d come into town with a day to spare after playing in Boston. It was early in the year. They were slightly less experienced, less seasoned and less hardened. They hadn’t yet become NBA finalists.
On Monday, they simply relaxed while the embattled Wizards found a way to rise to the occasion with an improbable 101-99 upset victory one night after they failed to score in the final seven minutes of a 28-point loss on the road at Miami. So, yeah, a few thoughts:
No, it wasn’t a quiet 29 points for Kevin Durant. Not with his huge one-handed smash to bring the Thunder to within one point with two minutes remaining. Not with his defense-defying 3-pointer to tie the game with just over 30 seconds left. Durant scooped in the first bucket of the contest and was a force throughout. He finished 9-for-10 at the line and had eight assists, seven rebounds and three steals.
Martell Webster was handed the unenviable task of guarding Durant all night long, a job characterized by Wizards coach Randy Wittman as, “not fun.”
“The ball is always going to back to him some way or in some fashion,” Webster said. “The only thing that you can do with that is you don’t lock any player like that up. It’s containing and forcing them into a contested jump shot and all the shots tonight were contested. A lot of them went in but some of the key ones he took went out and that’s what matters.”
Durant still shot 47.4 percent. Now, he also had some lowlights during the game, including getting scored on a post move by Jan Vesely, which may or may not have been worse than having a dunk rejected at the rim by Emeka Okafor. The latter ended with Durant sprawled on the ground. Durant also got the best of Vesely more than once while using his vicious crossover to shake free of Webster repeatedly.
Before the game, Thunder coach Scott Brooks, whose team once started 3-29 on the season, talked about the perseverance required to dig out of the kind of hole the Wizards are in.
“It helps to have Kevin Durant, too,” Brooks said after a long pause.
Durant certainly wasn’t the reason the Thunder lost. But he took the blame.
“We weren’t disciplined,” Durant said. “We weren’t solid on defense, we went stretches without moving the ball. We were playing against a team that plays hard every game and have nothing to lose. You can be beaten. We weren’t discipline at all and we can’t have things like that. We couldn’t hit shots. We had some good looks sometimes but we weren’t moving the ball. The ball got sticky and we can’t have that. We were up seven to eight points and we are letting them stick around because we aren’t taking it serious enough, and that falls back on the leaders of the team.”
Aside from shaky shooting from Trevor Ariza and A.J. Price in their first game back from injury, the Wizards shot surprisingly well for being without both of their top two scorers. Beal had a career-high five 3-pointeres. Webster had a season-high 22 points and a season-high four 3-pointers. Okafor (12 points, 12 rebounds) had his fifth double-double and scored in double figures for the sixth time in nine games. Vesely, meanwhile, was a stunning 5-for-6 from the field with season-highs in points (10) and rebounds (7).
It’s nice to have some genuine laughs, and it’s funny how that happens when the Wizards actually win. Wittman probably had the line of the night right at the start of his press conference after the game, some 24 hours after the Redskins playoff loss that was the dominant topic in Washington on Monday.
“Win or lose, this game, I couldn’t have been more prouder of a group of guys than these guys showed me,” Wittman said. “Being down to basically seven guys, and having to talk A.J. and Trevor — with the doctor’s approval, okay, with the doctor’s approval. I just want to make that clear, don’t want anything started here — that they could give me some minutes. They agreed to it. That showed me a lot there.”
Price then had his own moment when asked about what he saw when Beal hit the game winning shot.
“From my perspective, I was wide open,” Price said, drawing hearty laughs in the locker room (and he was open, too, check the video). I wanted another shot it. But he made a great move and a big time shot. It was a tough shot, not an easy one at all, but he shot it with confidence, and he knocked it down.”
The only thing crazier than Chris Singleton still getting basically zero playing time is that Vesely had his best game of the season. No player on the roster wants John Wall back more than the high-flying Czech. He had both good and bad moments against the Thunder, but finished 5-for-6 from the field – which makes sense at closer glance because all of his makes were from inside two feet. He never stops hustling for loose balls, to the point of being reckless at times, and the volleyball-style rebounding can’t be sustainable, but Vesely knows how to get out in transition and wants badly to make the right play.
Does he want it more than Singleton? Hard to say, but Singleton got off the bench for exactly 6.1 seconds at the end of the third quarter. Is that even better than not playing at all?
Last thing: Beal is becoming a star. Whatever the criticisms of Beal were during the first two months of the season, and there were plenty, Beal never changed. His unfailing positivity seemed naïve, and as recently as a couple of weeks ago, it seemed as though he was destined simply to blend in without rising to the level of superstar that is hoped and expected from a No. 3 overall draft pick.
He’s brushed aside the doubts about his potential with his play over the last week. He’s become a player to watch, a player for the Wizards to lean on, and a focal point of hope and even greater upside with Wall’s return expected just around the corner.
“Each game for him is a learning process; we fail to understand that sometimes,” Price said. “He’s playing against guys for the first time, he’s seeing guys for the first time. As the season is going on, he’s becoming more and more comfortable, and you can see it in his game. He’s playing with a ton of confidence.”