WASHINGTON — The Wizards won again on Thursday night. The Wizards always win these days.
With a 16th consecutive victory at Verizon Center, Washington has put itself firmly in the conversation for the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference with a 29-20 record. That’s an incredible accomplishment for a team that looked dead in the water at 9-14 on Dec. 12.
So what’s changed in seven weeks and is this at all sustainable?
The last DC sports team to reach a conference final was DC United when it won an MLS title in 2004. The league had 10 teams at the time. Prior to that, the Caps played for the Stanley Cup in 1998 and the Redskins won a Super Bowl in the 1991-92 season. That’s the list. Here are five reasons the Wizards could be the team to end that drought:
Start up the chant. Wizards point guard John Wall is playing at an MVP level – even if he somehow isn’t starting in the All-Star game and has little chance to overtake James Harden and some of the league’s top stars to actually win the award. Doesn’t matter. Wall is averaging a career-high 23 points per game and 10.3 assists per game. He can be a wrecking ball defensively, ranking second in steals (2.15/game). Wall will never be a top-tier outside shooter. He makes just 32 percent of his 3-pointers. But that’s what Bradley Beal is for. As electric as anyone getting up and down court, Wall gives the Wizards a chance to win every night. He’s a matchup nightmare for opposing teams.
Bradley Beal is healthy (Knock on wood)
Fair or not, you always hold your breath here. Beal has missed 19 games or more in three of four seasons in the NBA. So far in year No. 5 he’s only sat for four. With a super thin bench, that’s absolutely necessary because the Wizards won’t last long if Beal goes down again. The shooting guard is averaging 22 points per game. He plays strong on the defensive end, is a fine 3-point shooter (39 percent) and makes his free throws (81.6 percent). As long as Beal is on the floor the Wizards will be happy.
The Otto Porter breakout
Doesn’t look like a fluke. Porter moved into the starting lineup last season, but has made big leaps in field-goal percentage (53.3 percent), 3-point percentage (46.3 percent) and is up to 14.2 points per game. That 3-point shooting ranks No. 1 in the NBA. There should be some regression there, but Porter is way ahead of the competition. It doesn’t hurt that given the defensive attention paid to Wall and Beal, open looks are there on an almost nightly basis. The third pick of the 2013 draft is still just 23, a versatile defender at 6-foot-8 and has become a perfect complement to Washington’s backcourt stars.
A fixable weakness
The bench is an issue. That much was clear early in the fourth quarter of Thursday’s win over the Lakers. The starters returned to put the game out of reach after a rough stretch for Trey Burke and company. But it’s fair to argue Kelly Oubre, Jr. is solid in limited minutes and a good defensive option. And the Wizards have a chance to upgrade the bench anyway before the NBA trade deadline on Feb. 23. There are enough teams hopelessly out of playoff contention around the league that finding a suitor shouldn’t be too difficult. A defensive presence in the backcourt – or at least someone who could give Wall a breather down the stretch and at least hold the status quo in limited playoff minutes – would help.
The Eastern Conference
Few would pick the Wizards to beat the Cavaliers in a playoff series. Even with Cleveland’s recent struggles and injuries, it is the class of the conference and will be for a while yet with LeBron James. The best bet? Avoid the Cavs entirely. But Boston? Toronto? Washington shouldn’t fear those teams, who sit No. 2 and No. 3 in the conference entering play on Friday. The Wizards are just two games behind the Celtics for the second seed and split a pair of games with them this month. The upcoming schedule is a nice test, though, to see exactly where Washington stands. Cleveland is in town on Monday for a game that will draw good buzz, Golden State visits at the end of the month and March starts with a home-and-home against the Raptors.
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