Reporting David Elfin
The Wizards just passed the two thirds point of the season. They’re not going to the playoffs even in the weak Eastern Conference in which Milwaukee has a solid grip on the final postseason spot despite a 27-28 record. As well as Washington has played in the seven weeks since point guard John Wall returned from a knee injury, it’s not going to make up nine games on the Bucks with just 27 games remaining.
But as the Wizards close out their February schedule tonight at Detroit and start March on Friday at home against a formidable New York squad, they’re not just playing out the string either. Not after going 14-9 in their past 23 contests that included a 106-96 conquest of these same Knicks on Feb. 6. That was one of 10 victories in the last 12 home games for the Wizards with the only losses coming, oddly, against fellow sub-.500 teams Sacramento and Toronto.
In contrast, Washington’s recent victims at Verizon Center include three division leaders, the Knicks, Chicago and the Los Angeles Clippers, as well as playoff contenders Brooklyn, Atlanta, Denver and Houston.
However, besides losing to the Kings and Raptors at home, the Wizards have also fallen of late on the road to those same Kings, Detroit, Utah and Portland, none of whom figure to be playing in May.
That’s why Monday’s 90-84 victory at Toronto was so encouraging for coach Randy Wittman and Co. Washington didn’t need the motivation of trying to knock off a top team and/or the support of a home crowd to play well and extend its winning streak to three. All told, the Wizards have won seven of nine since returning from a winless four-game Western swing on Feb. 3.
Wall has been the overarching catalyst for the turnaround from a team that lost its first 12 games and was 5-28 without him to one that’s 13-9 with him. And yet, he made just three of 11 shots on Monday and the Wizards still secured their first triumph at Air Canada Centre since before his arrival as the top overall pick in the 2010 draft at age 19.
Rookie Bradley Beal led the way in Toronto with 20 points and six rebounds, giving the 19-year-old shooting guard averages of 20.2 points and 5.2 rebounds during Washington’s current 4-2 spurt. The third overall selection this past June also had a 2-1 assist-to-turnover ratio in those six games which began not long after he returned from missing five straight contests with a sore right wrist.
Center Emeka Okafor, a nine-year veteran acquired in a June trade with New Orleans along with small forward Trevor Ariza, has also been hot, averaging 14.3 points and 10.8 rebounds in those six games.
Power forward Nene, an 11-year veteran acquired last March from Denver, powered the Wizards to those consecutive victories over the Knicks, Nets and Bucks from Feb. 6-11 with three straight double-doubles. Like Okafor, Nene is 30, making them the senior Wizards.
The most unheralded of Washington’s starters, eighth-year small forward Martell Webster, was signed as a free agent last summer. The 26-year-old became a regular 16 games into the season, replacing Ariza, and has scored in double figures in 27 of the past 36 contests while hitting 44.9 of his three-point shots, second-best in the league.
After Friday, the Wizards won’t play the Knicks again until April 9. That’s 23 games from now. If Washington can maintain the pace it has been on since Wall returned, it will be 32-46 after that game at Madison Square Garden before finishing out the season against defending champion Miami, Philadelphia, Brooklyn and Chicago.
Losing nearly 50 games would be a disaster for such perennial contenders as San Antonio, Miami, Boston or the Los Angeles Lakers. But after compiling a horrendous 88-224 record during the past four seasons, winning 30 of their final 50 games would be a big step towards a hoped-for return to the playoffs in 2014 for the Wizards.
All of Washington starters but Webster are under contract for next year so if general manager Ernie Grunfeld can re-sign him, the Wizards will have chemistry and continuity when training camp begins for the first time since they were coming off a fourth straight playoff berth in the fall of 2008.
Imagine being optimistic about the Wizards heading into a season. That hasn’t happened in so long that Barack Obama wasn’t President yet, Robert Griffin III was a promising freshman at Baylor, and the Nats had just finished a 100-loss campaign. A different world, no?
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 three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin