WASHINGTON -- After spending the previous two days pushing and pleading for his team to show maturity and growth from characteristic lapses to start the second halves of games, Washington Wizards coach Randy Wittman found himself Friday night in a frustratingly familiar place.
Just 48 hours earlier, the same scenario played out at the start of the third quarter, with point guard John Wall spearheading the sloppy play and sulking that gave the Dallas Mavericks an opening to storm ahead for a double-digit lead and eventually a 105-102 victory.
Wittman spent that night and the next day constructively criticizing Wall’s competitive maturity. He challenged his team to grow up and learn how to prevent one bad stretch from leading to another and ultimately costing themselves winnable games.
Yet again, the Wizards were in the midst of a turnover-induced meltdown against Cleveland.
And again, an opposing team had converted those miscues into a string of unanswered baskets.
So again, Wittman tapped his shoulders as he stormed onto the court to break up the action. Only this time, unlike on Wednesday, Wittman’s actions spoke louder than any words he considered delivering.
“I called a quick timeout again,” Wittman said Friday of the pivotal moment before Washington regrouped to shut down LeBron James and the Cavaliers in a 91-78 victory. “Nothing really was said. It was a 20-second timeout. I just let them talk among each other. They knew that this was not the start we wanted. So I thought after that, we got going a little bit.”
Wall relished the opportunity for redemption on several levels. In addition to his stretch of turnover problems Wednesday, Wall also missed 12 of his 17 shots against the Mavericks. That kept him in the practice facility for an extended shooting workout that lasted nearly an hour after Thursday’s practice.
Another motivating factor, although Wall repeatedly downplayed it publicly, was his matchup with point guard Kyrie Irving, who was selected No. 1 overall a year after Wall was taken with the top pick in 2010. Wall has felt overlooked and underappreciated nationally when compared with Irving.
And it was also an opportunity for Wall to shine in a nationally televised game and return some of the same lessons on patience and process to the star-studded but struggling Cavaliers that James, then with the Miami Heat, used to routinely offer to Wall during tough stretches for the Wizards. The Wizards (8-3) are off to their best start in 40 years, but they lacked a signature victory over a quality opponent after losing to Miami in the season opener and recently to Toronto and Dallas.
Considering the state of disarray the Cavaliers are in right now amid a 5-6 start, it’s debatable how much of a statement victory Friday’s game was for the Wizards. But it didn’t lack for luster amid spotlight.
“I feel like, yeah, it’s a statement,” said Wall, averaging career-high marks with 19.5 points and 9.1 assists per game this season. “We lost to Toronto pretty badly. Dallas, we felt like we let that game get away. And we haven’t beaten a big-man team, everybody says. So this game was pretty big.”
But Wall insists the win only resonates and boosts the Wizards' profile as a legit contender if they can follow it up in the second game of a back-to-back set Saturday in Milwaukee.
“When you win this game, you have to back it up,” Wall said. “You win this one and then lose [Saturday], and you’re back to [critics] saying, ‘Are they really that or really this?’ If you want to be a legit team in this league, you’ve got to go right back out and win these type of games.”
Wall personified the three characteristics Wittman hoped to see from his team this week: resilience, toughness and maturity. It all resonated in Wall’s play, specifically in the third quarter. Wittman’s timeout was called about two minutes into the third quarter after Wall and Paul Pierce committed turnovers on consecutive possessions and Cleveland cut a 15-point deficit to nine.
Wall’s 3-pointer out of the timeout pushed the lead back to double figures, and his two free throws later in the quarter gave Washington its largest lead at 74-58. He shot 7-of-9 in the quarter and added two steals, two rebounds and an assist in the most productive quarter by a Wizard this season.
Wittman left his players to discuss among themselves the necessary corrective measures needed during that 20-second timeout. But what was actually communicated during that break?
Depends on which player was asked.
“I was telling my teammates to be aggressive,” Wall said. “If they have open shots, take them. If you miss them, we can live with that. But if we’re living with turnovers and bad shots, that lets a team get into the open court. We moved on. We failed quickly and moved on. Against Dallas, we’d get a turnover and hold our head [down]. Tonight, we just kept it moving, said it was our fault and kept playing.”
It took Wall about 30 seconds to deliver that quote, about 10 more than allowed during the timeout.
Bradley Beal, who had 12 points and five assists in his second game back from wrist surgery, suggested the message among players was about remaining focused and avoiding a repeat from Wednesday.
“We were able to stay poised,” Beal said. “It kind of got out of hand a little bit. We called a timeout and regrouped. We talked about the mistakes we made on the floor and what we needed to do better. And it stopped right there and we turned it around.”
Pierce, a 17-year veteran who has been a calming influence in those moments during his first season in Washington, couldn’t remember exactly what was said.
“I don’t even know,” Pierce said. “It was like three timeouts during that quarter. I’m so pumped with adrenaline right now after the game, I can’t even remember. But I’m sure it was something about our defense. It was the defense. That’s our identity. We have to be a hard-nosed defensive team that can shut down teams when they come in here every night. We’re taking steps in the right direction.”
Friday was more than a step. It was more like a significant leap defensively.
On the heels of giving up 105 points to the league’s top-scoring team, the Wizards held the Cavaliers, who are fifth in scoring, to their lowest output of the season. Cleveland shot a season-low 38 percent shooting from the field, were outscored 50-34 in the paint and 40-9 off the bench.
Add the 24 points the Wizards scored off 19 turnovers by the Cavaliers, and it was a dominant display.
“We were really locked in with five guys, for the most part, all night,” Wittman said. “We were aggressive pretty much all night. John started it, obviously, bouncing back. He wasn’t happy with his last game against Dallas and stepped up and came back. He was really aggressive from the start.”
Pierce senses Wall had an extra edge when he entered the game.
By the time it was over, it was clear Wall had proved his point.
MIAMI -- With one towel wrapped around his waist and another draped over his shoulders, Miami Heat center Chris Bosh emerged from the showers after a recent game, carved through reporters waiting at his locker and noticed neighboring teammate Shannon Brown scrambling to get away.
Brown hurried to dress and clear out of the way so Bosh would have all the space he needed.
“Why are you rushing? It’s just the media,” Bosh said. “They’ve got questions. We’ve got answers.”
If only it were that simple for the Heat this season.
Within a span of seven days, Miami has displayed the best of its progress and potential with impressive victories at Dallas and Brooklyn. And the Heat have also shown just how painstaking the process of rebuilding on the fly can be in demoralizing home losses to Milwaukee and a depleted Indiana team.
One week, the Heat are riding high after an impressive 5-2 start in which Dwyane Wade flashed his newfound health and durability by playing six games in nine nights. And the next week, the Heat stumbled through three straight losses and a rash of injuries to three starters that included Wade missing time with a strained hamstring.
Every time it seems the Heat (6-5) are on the verge of providing answers, more questions arise.
“I guess it’s just part of what we have to go through, I guess, because we’re right in the middle of it,” Bosh said of the erratic start to the season. “You knew it was going to be a little difficult. But it comes in ways you don’t expect. You just have to stay with it until it turns. Just get on course and do better.”
There’s a significant chance to turn again with Thursday’s visit from the Los Angeles Clippers as Miami looks to distance itself from consecutive embarrassing home losses. But even that opportunity comes with its own set of questions, specifically regarding the health and availability of three key players.
After missing the past three games, Wade didn't go through shootaround Thursday and is doubtful to play against the Clippers. Luol Deng, who sprained his wrist in Sunday’s loss to the Bucks, was held out of Monday’s win against Brooklyn. Heat forward Josh McRoberts practiced Wednesday after missing Monday’s game with a bruised foot.
At a time when the Heat had hoped to gain traction and establish some early continuity, injuries and inconsistent performances have instead forced them to use four different starting lineups in 11 games.
Add in Bosh’s week-long shooting slump, and it presents a buffet of excuses that could have led to a poor performance on the second night of a back-to-back set entering Monday’s 95-83 win against the Nets. Yet, the hard-to-figure Heat turned in perhaps their most encouraging effort of the young season.
Amid Wade’s recent injury history, questions have been raised about the Heat’s depth at shooting guard after an offseason in which Ray Allen and James Jones both departed. But Mario Chalmers, who has transitioned from starting point guard the past several seasons to Wade’s primary backup this season, has thrived in his new role. He’s shot 53 percent from the field and averaged 21 points and seven assists in the three games Wade has missed.
The Heat have also relied more heavily on rookie guards Shabazz Napier and James Ennis and hope they can build on their efforts from Monday, when they combined for 21 points, 11 rebounds, five assists and two steals and saw extended time in the fourth quarter. But those productive moments guarantee absolutely nothing moving forward. So far, the trend has seen that the Heat take one huge step forward only to lose their balance the next time they’re on the court.
Maintaining progress and patience has been a challenging balancing act for the Heat.
“You have to embrace that as a competitor, really,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “The NBA season turns like this for you, for whatever reason. The ball isn’t bouncing the right way. You’re not getting the calls you think you’re going to get. There are injuries. Guys are in and out of the lineup. That’s when you reveal yourselves as a basketball team. That’s how you grow -- [through] these mini points of adversity.”
That adversity has produced some uneven moments for a team that is working with as many as six new rotation players who were around for Miami’s two championships and four straight trips to the Finals.
Settling in means there are going to be some flashes of phenomenal play, which was the case when Miami efficiently carved through Dallas on Nov. 9 with beautiful ball movement that led to a season-high 31 assists and 55.3 percent shooting in that 105-96 victory. But getting acquainted also means there will be miscommunication and frustration, which were prominent when the Heat were outrebounded by 25 boards on Nov. 12 against the Pacers and consistently blew coverage assignments two nights after in Atlanta, where the Hawks shot 56 percent and scored 114 points.
No player on the Heat’s roster understands the challenge of change more than Deng, who is with his third team this calendar year after he was traded from Chicago to Cleveland last season before he signed with the Heat as a free agent over the summer.
“It’s definitely tough ... we’re having different lineups out there,” said Deng, who fills the starting small forward spot vacated by LeBron James. “The last couple of games, there have been games we showed how good we can play together. But it’s a long season. And this is definitely a learning process. We just have to come together, see the things we’re doing great and stick to that. And the things that are beating us, we have to learn to avoid those. Hopefully we can benefit from all of this in the long run.”
Bosh has been here before.
He knows it’s impossible to endure the long run by being short on patience. That, in part, is why he isn’t too perplexed by his recent shooting woes. After getting off to one of the most productive starts of his career through the first seven games, Bosh has shot just 28.3 percent from the field in his past four outings. He’s missed 11 of 14 attempts from 3-point range and averaged just 13.4 points in that span.
Bosh held himself and his teammates accountable with a harsh message after Sunday’s loss to the Bucks -- a setback that included his 2-for-17 shooting performance.
“We’re starting to see the same mistakes over and over and we’re just going to have to have a serious talk about it,” Bosh told ESPN.com after that game. “We’re not talking on defense; we’re not even running our set plays. It just can’t happen. If we’re going to go down, let’s go down executing and playing our game. We’re going down making mental lapses and mistakes at opportune times. I can understand missed shots. That comes and goes. But if we’re not even running plays ...”
About 24 hours later, after the relative breakthrough in Brooklyn, Bosh praised Napier and Ennis for showing some resilience and talked about the boost veteran Danny Granger provided in his debut after sitting out the first 10 games with a hamstring injury.
“We’re going to need them,” Bosh said.
The next step is to put two consistent weeks together.
Playing two consistent games would be a start.
“We just have to continue discussions about where guys are supposed to be and what they’re supposed to do,” Bosh said. “We can do this. We just have to pound away until it sticks.”
Maybe that’s when the answers will start to overshadow the questions facing the Heat.
The Post-Up Podcast
Wade experienced tightness in the hamstring during the first quarter of Wednesday's home loss against Indiana, but he played through the discomfort and led Miami with 20 points in 34 minutes.
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra initially told reporters after the team's Friday morning shootaround in Atlanta that Wade was questionable. After sitting out the session, Wade said it would be his first missed game of the season.
"Tonight, I'm not playing. It's as simple as that," Wade said. "It's just not smart for me to try and push it."
Wade is off to one of the most productive starts of his career as the Heat try to recover from the offseason departure of LeBron James, who returned to Cleveland in free agency after leading Miami to two titles and four straight Finals appearances.
The Heat entered Friday 5-3, with Wade having shaken previous injury issues to play in all eight games. That stretch included Wade playing in six games over a span of nine days, which included both ends of back-to-back sets on three occasions. Last season, Wade missed 28 games largely to address recurring knee soreness.
Wade is averaging 19.8 points, a team-best 6.4 assists and 3.5 rebounds a game. He suggested Friday the hamstring injury isn't a major concern at the moment and that he is sitting out as a precaution.
"I've had worse," Wade said. "I'll be back soon enough."
If it's not last, it's first.
The NBA on Friday released the style of the 10 team uniforms that will be worn Christmas Day, and the backs of the jerseys will feature players' first names.
The fronts of the jerseys feature each team's primary logo in the space where the team name or city is usually spelled out.
Adidas has produced the jerseys for fans to buy at retail for $110.
The Christmas Day slate includes the Wizards at Knicks, Thunder at Spurs, Cavaliers at Heat, Lakers at Bulls and Warriors at Clippers.
It happens every season -- teams cast aside as also-rans, with no hope for salvation. But lowered expectations, in a way, can be a blessing -- they frame the slightest success as a massive coup, a badge of honor declaring the team overcame the odds and surpassed the media's conjecture and assumptions. Sometimes it's due to a gross undervaluation of the growth of the talent on the roster, other times it's due to changing environments in the league, which present new opportunities for teams.
Last season's Phoenix Suns shocked the league with their hot start, and while they didn't quite make it to the postseason, their performance raised the expectation level for the team in the 2014-15 season. Meanwhile, the subtraction of Rudy Gay rerouted the Toronto Raptors from another trip to the lotto dais to division champs. Now they're considered to be one of the favorites to challenge for the Eastern Conference crown.
Expectations change rapidly, so the following five underestimated teams should bask in the sunshine of exceeded expectations before it turns into an interrogation spotlight.
That sound you hear? Half of Miami entering their credit card information.