by David Elfin

Having lost four of their past five games, the Wizards return from the NBA All-Star break tonight at Verizon Center against Toronto, to whom they’ve lost both games so far.

“So tomorrow is definitely a must win,” second-year guard Bradley Beal said yesterday. “We got to be on our toes, be ready to go and hopefully get off to a great start for the last 30.”

As in the final 30 games of a postseason push. Washington (25-27) is in sixth place in the Eastern Conference, three games behind the third-place Raptors and three games ahead of Detroit, the top team on the outside looking in at the playoff picture.

In 2008, the Wizards had the same record at the break but won 18 of their final 30 games to finish 43-39 and qualify for postseason for a fourth straight year. Washington hasn’t been back since. That team, led by 31-year-old Antwan Jamison, 27-year-old Caron Butler and 26-year-old Gilbert Arenas, was more experienced than the current crew and had achieved some success together, winning a playoff series in 2005. Incredibly, that remains the franchise’s only such triumph since 1982.

None of the current Wizards have been to the playoffs with Washington. Beal and All-Star point guard John Wall, the team’s leading scorers, have never played for another franchise. Nor have backups Trevor Booker, Kevin Seraphin, Jan Veseley and Chris Singleton or rookies Otto Porter, Jr. and Glen Rice, Jr. What’s more, Randy Wittman hasn’t reached postseason during his seven years as a coach in Washington, Cleveland and Minnesota.

The Wizards have been so awful for so long that if they win just five of their final 30 games, they’ll have their best record in six years. If they go 20-10, they’ll equal their best record since 1979, when they last reached the NBA finals and were still known as the Bullets. Even going 14-16 for a 39-43 mark should produce the franchise’s first playoff appearance since 2008 in the lousy East.

“We know we’re going to be a playoff team,” Beal declared. “In order to do that, we have to win games for one. Two, we have to focus on winning every game. It’s always tough to win games, but at the same we know seeding is very important for us.”

That’s because the seventh and eighth place teams will meet powerhouses Indiana and Miami in the first round. Everyone else in the East is pretty bunched together in the standings.

That the Wizards can even consider finishing no worse than sixth represents serious progress for a franchise that was 15-36, 7-26 (in a lockout-shortened campaign), 11-42, 15-39 and 17-33 at All-Star time during the previous five seasons.

Stability has certainly made a difference this year. Center Marcin Gortat, who was acquired from Phoenix on the eve of the opener, is the only one of the 10 Wizards who has played more than 215 minutes who wasn’t on the roster last season. And Gortat has blended in nicely, becoming especially tight with fellow big man Nene.

Wall, Beal, Nene and small forward Trevor Ariza are used to playing with each other, know what Wittman expects from them, and are comfortable in his offensive and defensive systems. That’s also the case for sharpshooting sixth man Martell Webster, burly backup forward Booker and lead reserve guard Garrett Temple.

It’s also important that the Wizards’ schedule during the 30-game playoff push is pretty favorable. Washington, which is 13-13 at home and 12-14 on the road, plays an equal number of games at Verizon Center and away from F Street. Only 11 of those 30 remaining games are against winning teams, with just four of those – at Atlanta, Toronto, Miami and Portland – on the road.

In fact, after the game at the Trail Blazers on Mar. 20, the Wizards don’t face another winning team on the road. And the four-game trip to Sacramento, Portland, Los Angeles (against the Lakers) and Denver that runs from Mar. 18-23 is the only remaining stretch when Washington plays more than two straight away from home.

If Washington – which admittedly often struggles against the dregs of the league and thrives against the elite – just beats all of its remaining opponents that currently have inferior records, it will finish 40-42 and almost surely be playoff-bound for the first time since the Bush Administration.

That was so long ago that the late Abe Pollin still owned the franchise, blue and bronze were the team’s primary colors, and Beal and Porter were rising 14-year-olds in Missouri, far from becoming the No. 3 overall picks in the NBA draft that they were in 2012 and 2013, respectively. But if the Wizards can be as solid over their final 30 games as they were during the first 52, they won’t have a shot at the No. 3 selection this June. That’s because they’ll finally be a playoff team again and won’t be in the draft lottery for just the sixth time in 26 years.

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.


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