“I just felt like the [Wizards] thought I was done, no matter how much hard work I put in over the summer; they came and watched me,” Wall said on the court after the game, in contrast to General Manager Tommy Sheppard’s and Coach Scott Brooks’s preseason statements about how fit Wall looked. “I thought they thought I was done. That’s why I came out here and did what I did.”
The Wizards’ first meeting with their former star was the story line that shrouded all else Tuesday night in Washington’s second game after resuming its season following a coronavirus pause. There were few positive takeaways for the Wizards (3-10), who are still discombobulated and have just 11 players available. Point guard Russell Westbrook, for whom Wall was traded in December, had his highest-scoring game since Jan. 6 with 19 points on 7-for-17 shooting, but he is still slowed by a left quadriceps injury.
Bradley Beal scored a team-high 33 points, logging his 12th 25-point game for the longest streak to start a season since Michael Jordan rattled off 16 for the Chicago Bulls in 1988-89.
The rest was less uplifting. Washington shot 39.3 percent from the field and made just five shots on 26 attempts from beyond the arc (19.2 percent). The Wizards committed 21 turnovers, handing 24 points to the Rockets (7-9) in a game that was tinged with emotion from the start.
“I mean, we turned the ball over. One, we got to make some shots,” Brooks said on a video conference call after the game. “We got a lot of looks from three — we’ve got to make them; otherwise the paint is going to be crowded and turnovers are going to be there. We’ve got to step up and make some of these shots so it opens up things and the defense can play us honest.”
The former dynamic duo of Wall and Beal shared an elaborate handshake before tip-off — coronavirus protocols be dammed — but there was no mistaking that Tuesday night was about revenge for the Wizards’ former point guard. He said as much in an interview that aired on NBC Sports Washington before the game, stating his motivation to win was in part to make Washington look bad for trading him and a protected first-round draft pick for Westbrook.
Wall led Houston with 24 points and was somewhat more reserved during a videoconference after the game. Describing what it meant to beat the team that drafted him No. 1 in 2010, Wall pointed out how many players the Wizards are missing and how February’s rematch in the District is likely to feel different.
“It was great. You know that team is better than what they have because a lot of guys have been out. … It wasn’t really nothing about proving nothing to me,” Wall said. “I know how hard I worked the last two years. I just wanted to go into this game, just play aggressive, play at a high level, get my legs back. The most important thing for me was getting the win.”
Even so, when asked what it feels like to be having fun playing basketball again — the Rockets are on a three-game winning streak — Wall quipped, “To be somewhere where you’re wanted, that’s the most important thing.”
Wall certainly played as if he wanted to make a fool out of his old team, whipping out some of his slickest moves. The highlight of the night came with about three minutes left in the first half. Wall brought the ball up and, with Raul Neto in his sights, took a stutter step, accelerated, moved the ball behind his back then laid it in with his left hand. When he jogged back downcourt, he did so open-mouthed — in mock awe of himself.
Victor Oladipo and Eric Gordon each scored 20 points to back him up.
“I’m always happy for him, back on the floor and just showcasing he’s healthy, getting back to playing the game he loves and having fun,” Beal said of his former backcourt-mate. “But it definitely felt weird playing against him. At the same time, it’s kind of like — we’re both competitors. It was almost like a practice setting: We’re just going at it, he’s going hard, I’m going hard. It is definitely weird, being on that other side, but I’m happy for him. He played a great game tonight.”
Washington hung with the Rockets, even during an abysmal third quarter in which both teams looked exhausted and played sloppily, until the Rockets reeled off a 14-4 run that carried into the start of the fourth.
The Wizards lost control completely after trailing 85-79; Wall was called for a charge that was overturned after a coaches’ challenge, and he completed a three-point play.
“I thought that was a charge, but they said he was moving,” Brooks said. “I trust [the officials].”
A three-pointer from Oladipo completed an 8-0 run that put the Rockets up 14 and effectively sealed the win with more than five minutes to play. Seconds later, Westbrook and Wall were each assessed technicals after jawing at each other.
The loss aside, Tuesday wasn’t all bad news for the Wizards. Deni Avdija, Davis Bertans, Troy Brown Jr., Rui Hachimura, Ish Smith and Moritz Wagner remain ineligible to play amid the NBA’s coronavirus protocols, but Brooks said before the game that four players have begun working out individually and “a couple” could be ready to return by Friday against Atlanta. First, Washington visits New Orleans on Wednesday night.