- The Washington Times - Monday, January 16, 2017

John Wall was half-giddy after the game when he snatched a group of grapes and chomped down on one. His mood was boosted because most of what he had to talk about was positive.

The Washington Wizards have won 12 consecutive home games. They are two games over .500 for the first time this season. Monday brought a blowout of a disinterested Portland Trail Blazers team, moving Wall to the bench late in the game to watch.

He almost made it through the fourth quarter in a reclined position. But, a season-long nag cropped up. Wall was re-inserted into the game with 7:28 to play in the fourth quarter after the Wizards‘ lead dipped to 18 points.

“Yeah, I’m used to that,” Wall said before another grape was consumed.

That small eye-roll aside, the Wizards‘ 120-101 matinee win vaulted them to a new spot, both mentally and in the standings. They are entrenched in the Eastern Conference playoff churn now, a small move from the outside that’s a significant step on the inside.

Two months to the day after dropping to 2-8, Washington is 21-19. Wednesday marks the midpoint of what has become a resurrected season, one that was brought out of a dire existence and has led to recent re-engagement with the fan base.

As the home winning streak moved from three to five to nine to 12, the crowd has come along. Anchored in the middle of the win streak were holiday crowds to provide an annual bump. Along the way came an expanding baseline for the amount of people in Verizon Center seats. Noise and population in the arena will not be mistaken for Golden State or Oklahoma City. Plus, the bar for improvement was pocket-dog low. However, like the team, it’s better.

Things have improved so much that Bradley Beal has shed grousing about early parts of the season for a large leap forward.

“We want to have homecourt when playoff time comes around,” Beal said. “These are all things that we’re preparing for down the line. It starts with us taking care of our house.”

This is an historic run for the organization. The 12-game home winning streak is the team’s longest since 1989. It is the fourth longest streak in franchise history. The team’s longest streak was a 22-game run in the 1974-75 season. Washington also has streaks of 14 and 15 consecutive at home.

Their home run is the longest current one in the NBA. Only the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors have more home wins.

“We’re trying to build something special here,” Wizards coach Scott Brooks said.

He’s seen what that looks like. When Brooks coached Oklahoma City from 2009-15, he worked in front of a frenzied group in the heartland. His first season at Chesapeake Energy Arena brought its smallest crowds. Fans filled 97.7 percent of the home seats. From 2012-15, the arena was at 100 percent capacity for every home game.

There is a ways to go in Washington, as to be expected for a franchise that has decades of losing to overcome, in addition to missing the playoffs last season and a putrid start to this one. Coming into Monday’s game, the Wizards were 27th in percentage of seats filled at home, at 76.8. That number is lagging well behind last season’s 87.3 percent and the 89.9 percent of the season before (both ranked in the lower third of the league).

The product has undergone a significant improvement since the start of this season. The betterment was reflected in Washington’s 10-0 lead Monday, a run that began with Wall dropped into a deep defensive stance across from Damian Lillard and Beal receiving easy looks. The meager push that caused Wall to re-enter the game in the fourth quarter was more nuisance than legitimate concern.

Wall and Beal were aware Lillard and C.J. McCollum were in town. After talk about the league’s best backcourt moves past Golden State, it swerves to places like Toronto, Portland and Washington. The Wizards‘ duo has contended they could be the best in the league, an assertion most find improbable, but their standing among the next tier is a fair discussion. Monday, Beal and Wall took apart McCollum and Lillard.

“Everybody knew that this was a game with two good backcourts going against each other, and to me that was just something that I took personally,” Beal said. “That’s something John takes personally. We just wanted to come out and compete at a high level.”

Washington has a shot to move its home winning streak to 13 on Wednesday when Memphis comes to town. Somehow taking on the road what has happened at Verizon Center becomes the priority after that. The Wizards are a miserable 4-13 on the road. That has to change for any shot at Beal’s lofty vision of their homecourt advantage extending to the postseason.

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