For the first time in the Randy Wittman, there is intrigue and excitement over how the Wizards will play. All preseason long, the Wizards have promised a “Pace and Space” approach – something a little closer to what the Warriors dominated the NBA with last season. It is a shift towards small ball, surrounding arguably the fastest player in the NBA, John Wall, with three shooters and a big man. This, rather than the conventional lineup with two big men, Marcin Gortat and Nene last season, both of whom do not have range extending to the 3-point line. It’s a game plan that, ideally, utilize’s John Wall’s blazing speed better. When shots go up, the wings leak out and Wall races down court, putting constant pressure on defenses and opening up for 3-point barrages from Bradley Beal, Otto Porter, and whoever else fills the wing.
For all of the excitement surrounding the Wizards’ new look in the preseason, the season opener in Orlando felt like a preseason game. Both teams were sloppy. Beal opened the game with back to back turnovers, and then Kris Humphries followed suit with a turnover of his own. Though sometimes out of control, Wall mostly steadied the team through the first quarter, responsible for 14 of the team’s first 16 points, with eight points and two assists. The Wizards sprinted ahead to an 18-9 lead in part to hot shooting from deep from Bradley Beal, who finished the first quarter with 13 points off of 5-9 shooting. But the quarter ended with the Wizards holding a single bucket advantage, as the Magic rallied behind their latest two lottery picks, Aaron Gordon and Mario Hezonja. The second quarter showcased a little bit of the good and bad of the “Pace and Space.” Kris Humphries, who for his career is 2-6 from behind the arc, hit a corner 3! That is a new dimension to his game, as he knocked down 10-28 3’s in the preseason. The other bright spot of the second quarter was newcomer Gary Neal’s productivity. The career journeyman has made a living in the NBA as a scorer, and he knocked in three baskets off the bench to keep the Wiz above water. It’s clear that it will take time for the team to figure out when to push the ball and when not to. The Wizards had seven turnovers in the half, and the increased pace coincided with recklessness. That is a symptom of playing fast, though John Wooden said: “play quick, but don’t hurry.” The Wizards look hurried getting the ball down floor, and it will take time before Wall and the rest of the team figure out when the break is not on.
The third quarter was even uglier than the second, and both teams struggled to score. Scott Skiles teams always play tough defense, but the Wizards’ offensive woes seemed self-inflicted more than having to do with stifling defense. The Wizards finished the quarter 4-17 from the field, with the two point advantage swinging to the Magic, heading to the final quarter. After making their first four 3’s of the game, the Wiz made just one of their next 15 3’s. Having gone ice-cold from deep, The Magic cobbled together an eight point lead with seven minutes to play. These are the types of games Wizards fans know all too well. The Magic did nothing particularly well, but a potent mix of carelessness with the ball and brick-layering from deep left the Wizards in a desperate position heading into crunch time. Then, out of nowhere, Wall and Beal took over. This is why fans in DC are excited about the Wizards. Down eight, the dynamic backcourt scored the team’s next 12 points, highlighted by a Wall steal for one of his signature behind the back lineups. But in typical Wizards fashion, just when it looked like the Wizards had taken control with a 12-0 run, the Magic responded with a 9-0 run of their own.
With the game going down the wire in the final minute, John Wall hit what proved to be the game-winner, coming off a Marcin Gortat and attacking the hoop. Wall bounced off Nikola Vucevic and dropped in a short floater, giving the Wizards a one point advantage with 20 seconds to play. On the final possession, Tobias Harris drove and tossed up a floater off the glass, and the ball sat on the rim for what seemed like forever, before Bradley Beal went up for the game-securing rebound. Except, the refs ruled it goaltending, thinking the ball was still on the cylinder. After a long review, the refs changed the call and instead, ruled it “illegal touching,” inexplicably giving the Magic the ball back with 3.5 seconds left. On the actual final play of the game, Nikola Vucevic, caught a pass at the foul line with his back to the hoop, took a dribble, and threw up a fadeaway jumper. It bounced off the back iron, and the Wiz escaped with an ugly, but hard-fought road win to begin the season.