LOS ANGELES (AP) The Washington Wizards are in a great position to make the playoffs for the first time in six years, and John Wall has a lot to do with it.
Wall had 28 points and 14 assists, leading the Wizards to a heated 117-107 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers on Friday night.
”He’s a competitor that comes every night,” coach Randy Wittman said. ”He’s obviously a big part that gets our engine running. So I want him to understand how important he is in continuing that.”
The Wizards are having their best season since 2007-08, when they ended a string of four consecutive playoff berths. They’ve already surpassed last season’s win total by seven with 13 games remaining, and are sixth in the Eastern Conference, with a seven-game lead over the New York Knicks for the final playoff seed.
”The difference this year is just trusting each other,” Wall said. ”This is a group that enjoys playing with each other, and we know the one thing we can do is play hard for 48 minutes and trust any guy down the stretch. I give a lot of credit to our organization and our coaches for helping our second unit improve.”
Washington (36-33) is one of only six teams in their conference with a winning record. But if they were in the West, they would be in 10th place – 4 1/2 games out of contention.
”I’m glad I’m in the East,” Wall said with a grin. ”But we still haven’t solidified a playoff spot, so we knew we had to get back on the right track – pushing the ball and playing team defense. When we get stagnant, we don’t play great and lose a lot of games like that. So it was great to get to come back tonight and get back on the winning track.”
Bradley Beal added 18 points for the Wizards, who began this four-game western trip with back-to-back losses to Sacramento and Portland. Nene sat out his 13th in a row with a sprained left knee, but Marcin Gortat returned to the lineup with 13 points and 13 rebounds in 34 minutes after missing his first game of the season because of pain in his lower back.
”Kudos to our guys and their connections out here on the coast to get him some treatment,” Wittman said. ”Last night we thought he was day-to-day, but he got here and he said: `You know what? I feel pretty good.’ I wasn’t anticipating that, but it was a pleasant surprise.”
Tempers flared with 2:14 remaining and the Wizards ahead 108-98, as Jordan Hill and Nick Young got into a scuffle with Gooden after a battle for a loose ball.
Referees Scott Foster, Mark Ayotte and Nick Buchert went to the video monitor at the scorer’s table review, and Gooden was assessed a Flagrant 2 foul and was ejected. So was Hill, who received a technical foul. Young also got a technical, but stayed in the game.
Young and Jodie Meeks each scored 21 points for the injury-jinxed Lakers, who welcomed Young, Hill and Steve Nash back into the mix and had 12 players in uniform for the first time since March 4.
Coach Mike D’Antoni, unable to play Wesley Johnson because of an upper-respiratory infection, used his 30th different starting lineup with Robert Sacre at center and Pau Gasol shifting to power forward alongside newcomer Kent Bazemore. Gasol had 14 points and 14 rebounds.
Nash, who sat out the previous 15 games because of chronic nerve damage in his back that has limited him to 11 appearances all season, had 11 assists and five points in 19 minutes off the bench. On March 13, following an individual workout by Nash at Oklahoma City, D’Antoni told the media that the two-time MVP was done for the season. But when Jordan Farmar was sidelined by a groin strain, all bets were off.
”Steve always kept in shape,” D’Antoni said. ”He wanted to play and he was getting there, so it made sense to go ahead and get him in there.”
Young sat out the previous 11 games and 17 of 18 with a sore left knee, and Hill was sidelined for eight games due to a sore right knee. All three of the returning Lakers ended up on the court at the same time when Nash and Hill reported in with 3:26 left in the first quarter and Los Angeles trailing 24-12.
Trevor Booker’s short running jumper gave the Wizards their biggest lead, 72-51, with 7:22 left in the third quarter. Nash reported back in with 3:44 left in the period and orchestrated an 18-7 Lakers run that included seven points by Sacre, whose dunk with 3.3 seconds on the clock narrowed the gap to 88-81.
”It didn’t look like he missed a beat to me. That’s how talented he is,” Wall said. ”No matter how old Steve Nash is, man, whenever he runs that pick-and-roll, he’s efficient and one of the best at passing and getting his shot. A lot of people are writing him off, but when he’s healthy, he’s still one of the greatest all-time. So you’ve got to respect a two-time MVP in this league.”
NOTES: The Lakers failed to sell out for the fifth time, drawing 18,112 – 885 short of capacity. … Nash has played in just three games since his 40th birthday on Feb. 7, when he scored 19 points at Philadelphia. … C Chris Kaman and G MarShon Brooks suited up for the Lakers, but didn’t play. … Wall is the only player to start each of the Wizards’ first 69 games. No one has started all 82 for them since swingman DeShawn Stevenson in 2007-08. … The Lakers have held opponents under 100 just 18 times. The only team that has done it fewer times is Philadelphia (nine). … The Lakers’ only lead came after Meeks made a layup for the first basket of the game.