- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 25, 2018

Wizards star Bradley Beal lamented the fact his team was outworked in Friday’s 122-105 loss to the Charlotte Hornets.

“They just flat-out whooped us,” Beal said.

At 34-25, the Wizards’ record is just two wins under last year’s 36-23 at the same time, when Washington had the third-best record in the East before tailing off, finishing with 49 wins and going into the postseason as the No. 4 seed.

But holding steady may not be good enough this time. While the Wizards have been treading water, the rest of the Eastern Conference has gotten better. A lot better.

When the Wizards finished fourth last year, they were four games back of the top seed. More importantly, the Wizards, with a six-game lead over the fifth-seeded Atlanta Hawks, had wiggle room.

This year, the middle of the conference is packed tighter in the standings. Only 2½ games separate the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Philadelphia 76ers for the third and seventh seeds, respectively. The Wizards entered Sunday’s game against Philadelphia as the fourth seed.

That’s why losing to teams like the 26-33 Hornets, can be costly. Through March 25, the Wizards will face 14 consecutive games against teams currently slated for the playoffs. Charlotte was one of the Wizards’ rare games against an “easier” opponent.

“[The schedule’s] a challenge from God and we got to accept it,” forward Kelly Oubre said.

Make no mistake, the East isn’t just a bunch of mediocre teams lumped together in the middle.

Teams are deeper and they all have rising stars stepping up on a night-to-night basis.

Even a team like Indiana, fifth in the conference with a 34-25 record, has an All-Star in Victor Oladipo and a promising center in Myles Turner. Milwaukee has a generational talent in Giannis Antetokounmpo. Philadelphia has two with Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid.

If the Wizards drop in the conference, they could end up facing Boston, Toronto or Cleveland in the first round. That would be a nightmare scenario for a team that looked like a 50-win squad before the season and had goals of reaching the conference finals.

Theoretically, Washington could upset one of those teams, even as a lower seed. But the journey becomes harder without home court. In the playoffs last season, the Wizards were 6-0 at home — and just 1-5 on the road.

The Wizards don’t need to hit the panic button. Even with the Charlotte loss, Washington has won eight of its last 11. They will get John Wall back from knee surgery in mid-March. Tomas Satoransky has elevated his play, and Beal is playing like an All-Star.

The Wizards’ goal, coach Scott Brooks said, is for them to be in a better position when Wall returns.

In the next 14 games, the Wizards will play eight teams in the East. Those games will be crucial in helping to decide tiebreakers and help create separation in the standings.

“I view it as a good thing,” Beal said. “I love competition, anyway. I’m sure the rest of my teammates do as well. We’re not backing down from it, but I think at the same time it’s going to prepare us moving forward. Just a few of them we may potentially face, and teams out West are going to challenge us as well. It’s definitely going to battle test us in a variety of ways.”

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