by David Elfin

Perhaps we should re-name our NBA franchise the Whoa-zards because coach Randy Wittman’s team has been pretty surprising since Nene went down with a sprained knee 15 days ago.

“It will definitely be a [gut] check for our team,” center Marcin Gortat said before Washington’s first game without Nene. “One of our best guys went down and now we’ll see how we gonna respond.”

So far, the Wizards have more than passed the gut check. Washington, which had been 8-34 without the brawny Brazilian before this latest injury, is 5-1 since he was hurt in Cleveland.

Small forward Trevor Ariza has really responded in Nene’s absence, averaging 24.5 points to raise his season average to 15.2 points compared to 9.5 last year, his first in Washington. Ariza, whose 36 minutes per game are second on the team, has raised his rebounding average from 4.8 last season to 6.4 and his assists from 2.0 to 2.6.

The successful fortnight has increased the Wizards’ hold on fifth place in the Eastern Conference, meaning if the season ended today, they would meet fourth-place Chicago Bulls in the first round of the playoffs.

That bodes well for Washington which won 102-88 in Chicago on Jan. 13 and beat the Bulls again 96-93 at Verizon Center four nights later. And if history matters, the Wizards/Bullets’ only playoff series triumph since 1982 came over the Bulls in 2005, the first spring of what would be a four-year playoff run that always ended against Miami and Dwyane Wade (2005) or Cleveland and LeBron James (2006-08).

Of course, the Heat, who play host to the Wizards tonight after losing to the Bulls yesterday, now boast both James and Wade and are the two-time defending NBA champions. However, don’t expect Washington to be fazed by the 43-17 visitors. After all, the Wizards demolished the Heat by 17 when last met on F Street on Jan. 15 after losing by 10 on Nov. 3 in Miami.

“That was probably the most poised I’ve ever seen us,” second-year shooting guard Bradley Beal said after the victory over the Heat. “We were up 30. Then they ended up going on a run. We didn’t expect anything less from them. But … that didn’t faze us.”

These Wizards, whose leading scorers are the 20-year-old Beal and 23-year-old All-Star point guard John Wall, haven’t been fazed by much lately. Washington has won eight of nine overall and 14 of its last 20 on the road. A 12-8 finish would produce the franchise’s best record (45-37) since its last trip to the NBA finals back in 1979.

In any event with just those 20 games remaining, the 33-29 Wizards are currently a solid 9-1/2 games into a postseason spot. That’s the margin between them and Detroit, the top team on the outside looking in at the Eastern Conference playoffs.

Washington is 9-8 against the other seven Eastern teams currently playoff-bound and has beaten each of them except top-seeded Indiana, which romped in both meetings. The Wizards are 2-0 against Chicago, No. 6 Brooklyn and No. 7 Charlotte and 2-1 against No. 8 Atlanta.

“Last year we panicked a lot,” Beal said after the 96-93 victory over the Bulls in January. “This year we are way more poised, we get a lot more stops down the stretch on defense, and we execute on offense as well. We do a great job of just staying the course and executing when we have the opportunities to.”

That was never more for the guys in red, white and blue when they finally showed they could beat Toronto, outlasting the host Raptors 134-129 in triple overtime on Feb. 27 after losing the first three matchups by a combined 31 points.

“We’ve proven that we can beat this team,” center Marcin Gortat said afterwards. “We really build the chemistry, we really build the team spirit with this win.”

In a quirk of the schedule, Washington has played just three games against those other seven teams since Jan. 17, splitting with Toronto and whipping the Hawks by 17. But tonight’s game with the Heat is the first of three such games this week with the Bobcats and the Nets coming to Verizon on Wednesday and Saturday, respectively.

After that stretch, Washington plays six more such games before the season ends at Boston on April 16, five at home – against Indiana, Atlanta, Chicago, Charlotte and Miami — and one at Charlotte.

As of now, unless the Wizards draw the Pacers, they have to have some level of optimism going into a first-round series by which time Nene should be back.

Considering that Washington hasn’t even reached postseason since the Bush Administration and has just one series triumph in 31 years, that’s serious progress for a franchise that could well wind up being the area’s only major pro team to make the playoffs in 2013-14.

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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