- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 24, 2015

Kris Humphries reached for an energy bar on his way out of the locker room earlier in the week. He knocked his head against a jutting wall, immediately prompting Washington Wizards officials to point out, for goodness’ sake, the team doesn’t need any more injuries.

Humphries was fine, nothing a quick rubbing of the skull would not fix. He was also well enough to participate in a weeklong revival for the woebegone Wizards. Who knew almost being .500, the winners of just three in a row, would be cause to smile?

Yet, that’s where they are. Mentally and physically wobbled after a four-game road trip that produced one win and sunk them four games under .500, the Wizards have simplified and survived. The three consecutive home wins without key parts have stabilized their season. It has not produced a winning record yet. But, it’s a start in what could be the most crucial part of the season.

“We can’t trip anymore,” Marcin Gortat said. “It’s not like it’s the 10th game of the season or the 20th game of the season. We’re coming close to the middle of the season. We’ve got to start winning.”

The list of injured Wizards players is expansive and noteworthy. Bradley Beal (lower right leg) has missed seven games. He will be evaluated again next week. Nene (calf) and Drew Gooden (calf) have each missed a month. They could be back this weekend.

Even those able to take the floor are flooded with ailments. John Wall must feel like someone has a voodoo doll of him and is haphazardly sticking it with pins. Wall has a high ankle sprain, a sore knee and sore ribs. He’s mostly silent about the physical problems, because he is busy trying to haul an ever-increasing physical load.

“That’s why he is who he is,” coach Randy Wittman said.

Pick a philosophical saying about opportunity and it applies here. Chance favors only the prepared mind or other such quotation. Wittman is not spinning eloquent tales with soaring oratory or reciting Socrates. Though, he does know injuries mean chances for others, and that belief can mean results.

Extracting regulars from the rotation has opened time for Garrett Temple and rookie Kelly Oubre Jr. The result has been growth for each, notably Temple. Better served in the open floor, Temple has added scoring to his typical high-energy defense. During the three-game winning streak, Temple twice set career highs in scoring. He averaged 21.3 points per game. Wittman’s pregame message last Saturday harped on the strength of self-belief. The concept crawled inside of Temple.

“He told us to believe we’re going to go out here and win this game,” Temple said. “To believe in yourself, believe in each other, and believe that you’re going to have the best game of your life. If everybody believes that individually, then obviously, collectively, we’re going to have a good game. I took that to heart.”

Oubre has been active and steady, often playing sensible basketball that is counter to his outward swagger and damning birth certificate that reminds he is just 19 years old. He fouls often. At times, he runs a defensive coverage wrong. Really, it’s what was expected of a rookie who was ticketed for a redshirt year before the glut of damaged extremities forced him onto the floor.
When the injury run claimed Gary Neal on Monday, Temple and the team looked around.

“You would say next man up, but there was no next man,” Temple said.

Back when fully staffed, the team caused Wittman to question its toughness. The new offensive style had not just made the Wizards a poorer defensive team, but had flipped their identity with unproductive results. They are now one of the fastest offenses in the league; no surprise, since they have set themselves up to provide open road for Wall, one of the league’s fastest and most dynamic players.

Lost was the dockworker sense of grit. Washington would score 105 points. It would allow 110 or more. The points increase, to a degree, was a natural byproduct of the new offensive pace. Though, it also was tied into the Wizards‘ lacking intensity and execution.

Wittman made defensive changes. Earlier in the week, he allowed his defenders to switch more often against screens. He instructed players such as Jared Dudley to play against the pick-and-roll in a different manner. Dudley stuck tighter to his man instead of hedging hard and high toward the ballhandler. Slashers had been able to suck multiple defenders along with them, then kick the ball out. The Wizards‘ 3-point defense was putrid because of the tracking of the ballhandler. In the last three games, Washington’s opponents have shot 32.3 percent from behind the 3-point line. For the season, the Wizards allow 40.1 percent, last in the league.

“He’s tired of the point guard killing us,” Dudley said of his coach.

Wittman was also tired of an uninspired team. He called the group “soft” on multiple occasions. He’s turned to a laudatory tone the last week, first saying the team “played its heart out” then following with a verbal postgame pat on the back for an uptick in intensity. He knows the players are trying to maintain and establish in the same time period.

Even some of those who play are hurt. Neal missed a game because of back pain before playing 16 minutes on Wednesday. He sat on the bench with a large wrap around his thigh. Temple is having the best run of his career with black tape spread across his shoulder like webbing.

At the end of the season, these injury-filled weeks will be recalled two ways: That memory of when times were rough, the team hung around, players returned and it vaulted forward. Or, a period when a group which had a rough start when whole, fell to pieces following a pile of injuries. The Wizards are four games out of second place in the improved Eastern Conference, waiting for the team to be healthy, seeing which it will be.

“Just to be close to near around .500, and when we get [healthy], we have an opportunity to do something special,” Wall said.

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