by David Elfin

If the Wizards had lost a game like last night’s 96-94 heartbreaker to Sacramento even a month ago, the typical reaction would have been something along the lines of, “Yeah, what else is new?”

But much has changed for Washington since John Wall returned from a knee injury on Jan. 12. In the intervening 17 days, the Wizards are 6-4, topping their 5-28 record without the No. 1 overall pick in the 2010 draft. So there was disappointment, and dare I say, shock when Isaiah Thomas made a last-second shot to end their five-game home winning streak last night.

“If you let a team that’s a high scoring team that scores at that caliber stay in the game, they’ll end up making you pay for it in the fourth quarter and they did that,” Wizards small forward Martell Webster lamented. “We let them get the best of us. … You’ve got to make home very important. You’ve got to make it a place that’s tough to win in. We let ourselves down, we let our fans down.”

No, you didn’t Martell. For the first time in five years, the Wizards are a competitive NBA team. That’s so long ago that rookie shooting guard Bradley Beal was in ninth grade, Wall was in 11th and only Webster, backup forward Trevor Ariza and big men Nene and Emeka Okafor were in the NBA.

Sure, the ongoing upswing has lasted for all of 10 games. And sure, Washington closed out its ugly 2011-12 season by winning eight of its final 10. But half of those eight victories came against playoff-bound teams resting up for postseason.

The current span is more real. The Wizards’ six victories with Wall in the lineup have come by an average of 12 points while their four defeats were by a total of 14 points. Washington has pounded Central Division frontrunner Chicago and playoff perennials Atlanta and Denver while pushing the Pacific Division-leading Los Angeles Clippers hard on the road. If not for the two narrow losses to the Kings, the Wizards would be an on an 8-2 tear.

“We’ve started proving a point, we’ve started playing our game,” Nene said after the Wizards thumped the Bulls this past Saturday.

With playmaker Wall and Beal, the No. 3 selection in last June’s draft, in the backcourt and Nene, Okafor and Webster up front, the Wizards are fun to watch for the first time since they broke up the Gilbert Arenas-Antawn Jamison-Caron Butler triumvirate by trading the latter two in February 2010.

Wall made nine of 16 shots with six assists against Sacramento while playing 29:56 in his third game in four nights. He’s playing at full-throttle, slicing through opposing defenses as easily as rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III did this fall for the Redskins. And as is the case with Pro Bowl pick RGIII, Caps’ two-time MVP Alex Ovechkin and Nats Rookie of the Year Bryce Harper, all eyes are drawn to Wall.

While Wall is the catalyst for coach Randy Wittman, having Nene and Okafor down low is also critical. They’re light years more reliable than backups Jan Vesely and Kevin Seraphin. If Nene can keep his fragile left foot healthy, he and fellow 30-year-old Okafor can provide the oomph in the paint that will allow Wall, 22, and Beal, 19, to grow as a tandem outside. The versatile Webster and instant offense Jordan “I Never Saw A Shot I Didn’t Like” Crawford are nice complementary pieces to the formidable four.

If the Wizards maintain their pace of the last 17 days for the rest of the season, they’ll finish 35-47, still a long way from making the playoffs, but also easily their best record since they reached postseason for the fourth straight year back in 2008. More important, this woebegone franchise, which has won just one postseason series during the past three decades, has genuine hope of a bright future.

David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since last March. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin


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