Of the seven other teams that have qualified for the Eastern Conference playoffs, the Wizards have managed a victory against all of them. A few they’ve beaten more than once.
The Miami Heat are not one of those teams. But the Wizards, who held a sizeable lead in two losses and claimed a 114-97 victory at home on Jan. 15, know they can hold their own against the class of the Eastern Conference.
“I just think it’s human nature to play up to your competition some times,” said forward Al Harrington. “When you know you’ve got one of the best teams coming in, everybody put on their best outfits, get their car cleaned that day and just try to come in and give it your all. I think that’s what Miami brings out of all the teams in the league.”
Following a 96-88 road victory over the Orlando Magic on Friday and a 104-91 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks on Saturday at Verizon Center, the Wizards will play host to one possible future playoff opponent on Monday. Their success over the weekend assured them of a winning record for the first time in six years and has given them a modest two-game winning streak.
It represents little – the Magic and Bucks own two of the three worst records in the league – but that Washington didn’t squander away victories in games it should have easily taken represents a step in the right direction for a team that has struggled with consistency, especially on defense.
Though the Wizards trailed by as many as 14 points in the first half on Friday, they held the Magic to 37 percent shooting after the break. Then, on Saturday, they led the Bucks by only three points at halftime, but forced 14 turnovers in the second half – six in the third quarter – to pull away from a team that hasn’t won on the road since Feb. 27.
Washington has been passive in recent games, reacting only after allowing opponents to dictate the tempo and style of play early in the first quarter. In that regard, facing Miami in the second-to-last game of the season should provide the Wizards with a taste of the aggression required in the postseason.
The high-powered Heat are battling with the Indiana Pacers for the top seed in the conference, yet the Wizards have played them tough in the three previous meetings between the Southeast Division opponents. Washington lost both games in Miami, but made a statement with that victory at home onJan. 15 when it led 43-18 after the first quarter.
Bradley Beal, who had a game-high 26 points for the Wizards on Saturday, said that drubbing will likely add to Miami’s motivation on Monday. That, in turn, should force Washington to elevate its own play.
“I think our focus level’s high,” Beal said. “We always feel as though we have something to prove. We always play with that chip on our shoulder and we always compete against them. We match up pretty well against them and it all starts on our defensive end. Once we defend and guard and we move the ball to the other end, we love our chances against them.”
That confidence comes in part from the Wizards’ ability to make three-point shots against the Heat this season. They shot a combined 40.9 percent on three-pointers in their three games against Miami, but their biggest issue over the past week has come from an inability to knock down shots from the perimeter.
They entered Saturday having made just six of their 50 attempts in their previous three games, with Beal going 2-for-13, John Wall going 2-for-11 and Trevor Ariza going 0-for-11 during that span. Against the Bucks, who have the worst three-point shooting defense in the league, the Wizards went 8-for-22, or 36.4 percent, from behind the arc.
“When we don’t take open shots, I don’t care who it is – the next shot we take is going to be a terrible shot,” said coach Randy Wittman. “I want all our guys to believe that, ‘When I’ve got an open shot, I want to be aggressive and take it.’ That’s the kind of confidence you’ve got to try to instill in your players – not hesitating on a shot if it’s their shot when the opportunity presents itself.”
The Wizards insist they know what they’re likely to experience in the postseason, and what the younger players don’t know will be imparted by veterans such as Harrington, Andre Miller and Drew Gooden.
Considering what’s on the line Monday, with each team fighting for playoff seeding, there will be no better time for the Wizards to check their resolve.