- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 28, 2016

When the problem on paper became one in real life, Washington Wizards coach Randy Wittman had a choice and an answer. As mundane as that seems, it hasn’t been the case this season for the Wizards. Often, Wittman was stuck because of injuries or age, unable to search out an alternative for a problem.

Sunday afternoon, when the Cleveland Cavaliers posted Kevin Love relentlessly from the start, Wittman had the personnel to adapt. Markieff Morris replaced Jared Dudley to start the third quarter, banging away with three-time all-star in a way Dudley could not. Dudley fought when he fronted Love, but needed help over the back. Morris was able to push back much more as a solo act.

If something was clear in Sunday’s caveat-filled 113-99 Wizards win against the Cavaliers, it was that Washington finally looks whole. It has three big men after signing J.J. Hickson. Trading for Morris brought a different style to the backup — likely soon to be starting — power forward spot. Alan Anderson finally moving from the rah-rah bench seat to the floor has added another layer. It’s late February, and Washington is starting to appear situated.

“I’ve got a smile on my face with Alan healthy and Markieff here,” Wittman said.

A win over the Eastern Conference’s top team counts as just that. Though, there are circumstances around it to acknowledge before striking up the band. LeBron James did not play. The Cavaliers opted to rest him. Let that sink in, then we can move on.

Next is that Cleveland played the Toronto Raptors on Friday in Toronto and will play the Indiana Pacers on Monday at home. So, when it came time to raise a white flag after the Wizards stormed through the start of the third quarter, the Cavaliers were burning their hands from pulling on the rope so fast.

The Wizards will not be choosy at this point. Any win helps to counter the grumpy math associated with their playoff chances. Washington remains two games under .500 and two games out of the playoffs with 24 to play. Its moribund home record has improved to 15-16 after winning five consecutive games. To enter the playoffs, it’s reasonable to think the Wizards will need 42 or 43 wins. That means a closing run around 15-9.

“We’re behind the 8-ball still, but this is a win we needed even with LeBron not playing,” Dudley said. “We need to start getting on a roll, win six or seven and get in that playoff hunt.”

Twelve of the remaining games are against sub-.500 teams. Four are head-to-head matchups with the four teams — the Pacers, Charlotte Hornets, Chicago Bulls and Detroit Pistons — that are directly ahead of them. The only heavy matchups are against Cleveland next Friday, at the Golden State Warriors on March 29, and at the Los Angeles Clippers on April 3. Opportunity, as much as one could be available, is there.

Having Morris and Anderson should help. Each adds the immeasurable element of grit to a team Wittman bashed as soft numerous times this season. Morris opts to dunk on opponents even when the Wizards lead by 20 points. Anderson knows he’s in town to play defense, then shoot occasional 3-pointers.

Sunday was the second consecutive time Morris started the second half in place of Dudley. In part, the move has been made as a countermeasure. It’s also a step to fold him in with the starters, a place he appears in line to be shortly — perhaps as soon as Monday night against the Philadelphia 76ers. His comfort level has almost been maximized following six games with his new team.

“Defensively, I’m 100 percent there,” Morris said. “Offensively, I think about 80 percent, 85 percent.”

Anderson went almost 10 months between games because of multiple ankle surgeries. He’s a tenacious small forward, and still on a minutes restriction, joining with Morris to make the team’s edge sharper. It’s a small marker of progress, if not enough to help haul the Wizards into the playoffs.

“Just more depth,” Dudley said. “We’re understanding our roles.”

Dudley said he would like to know in advance if he will be playing off the bench or starting — not that he’s picky about which spot, but that he would prepare accordingly. He’s aware that teams typically do not trade two players and a first-round draft pick for a bench player. That’s the case thus far with Morris.

Bradley Beal remains also remains on a minutes restriction. He was exasperated with the questions on Sunday when asked if he has any sense of when it will be lifted.

“I have no idea,” Beal said.

Dudley has not pulled out an abacus or typed into his phone’s calculator to determine the Wizards‘ playoff chances. He looks at the standings to see how many games back the team is. He’ll also glance at the schedule to see how many head-to-head games remain against teams in front of them. He knows the path to the playoffs is simple. Walking down it is another matter.

“We’ve got to play good basketball,” Dudley said. “One of those teams could go on a losing streak. The question is: Are we going to win enough?”


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