- - Monday, March 26, 2018

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Earlier this month, the Wizards were among a few teams yet to suffer a three-game losing streak this season, despite missing John Wall for 26 contests at that point.

Now, with Wall nearing a return, Washington has endured its second three-game skid in three weeks. The team has dropped from fourth to sixth in the fight for playoff position, with the Milwaukee Bucks and “60 Minutes” star Giannis Antetokounmpo breathing down its neck.

And, oh yeah: The San Antonio Spurs visit Capital One Arena Tuesday.

You might notice a difference in the level of competition compared to Sunday’s opponent, the New York Knicks. But there’s no telling if the Wizards will see the difference. The Knicks came to D.C. with nothing to play for and nothing to lose, but they left with a 101-97 victory and a measure of vindication for former Wizards guard Trey Burke.

“I don’t want to make it about me,” Burke told reporters after scoring 19 points in his first start in three years. “We won the game and that’s the biggest thing.”

The Knicks improved to 20 games under .500, reminding us that the Wizards have struggled at times with sup-par teams. Washington’s record against teams below the break-even mark is 19-11, worst among the Eastern Conference’s top 10 teams.

Slogging through the schedule in late January before the All-Star break is one thing. Failing to play inspired basketball down the stretch with the playoffs looming is something else altogether.

“We acted like we didn’t give a damn, honestly,” Wizards guard Bradley Beal told reporters.

That’s an infuriating, inexplicable trait for a team that hasn’t won a title in the last 40 years. The Wizards retired Phil Chenier’s jersey on Friday and honored the 1978 championship squad Sunday. If you thought the weekend celebrations would inspire the current Wizards, think again. The desperate Denver Nuggets pulled away late in the fourth quarter for a victory and the Knicks prevented Washington from clinching a playoff berth.

Guard Tomas Satoransky said the Wizards are playing like they can’t wait for Wall’s impending return and they expect it to be a cure-all. Washington has gotten away from the style it exhibited when Wall underwent left knee surgery on Jan. 31.

Anyone out there still harbor the ludicrous thought that the Wizards are better without him?

He has missed 25 consecutive games. Washington was 10-3 in the baker’s dozen after he went down but is only 4-8 since. His return to full-contact practice on Saturday brought relief and a spark, although it didn’t carryover against the Knicks.

“He brings the juice,” coach Scott Brooks told reporters. “He brings the energy level up. We practiced pretty hard. Our guys have great habits, but you’re talking about one of the best players in the league. That raises the level in the gym.

“Awareness level is up. The energy, the attention to detail, everything is up. When you’re going against him, you’re pretty locked in because he puts you in some pretty embarrassing positions.”

We still don’t know how much longer before Wall can make opponents look bad. He spoke to the media Monday for the first time since his surgery and said he feels great, though he couldn’t provide a timetable for his return.

“I feel like I’ve shown what I have to do in practice,” he told reporters. “I’m going through all the protocols for things I have to do to clear what they want me to clear. But I have done mostly everything they have asked me to do so far.”

Washington’s early success without him suggests he won’t have to do everything once he’s back. Likewise, the recent lethargy is proof that the team desperately needs its best player on the floor.

The Wizards hung tough for a while and actually played better than previously. But they’re finally wilting while waiting on Wall.

“I’m glad we won those game that we did,” he said. “Because if we didn’t, then right now we would be in a situation where we might not be in the playoffs.”

Only an utter collapse would keep the Wizards from a second consecutive postseason berth. Even with the losing streak, their magic number is down to two. Limping into the playoffs is a meager consolation prize compared to heady thoughts entering the season but that’s where things stand.

Wall has been ruled out for Tuesday’s game but will have three other opportunities this week. He vows to play the same style of aggressive basketball that has made him a five-time All-Star.

“I’m just going to be John Wall,” he said. “That’s all I know how to do.”

The Wizards will take it.

Hurry back.

Deron Snyder writes his award-winning column for The Washington Times on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Follow him on Twitter @DeronSnyder.


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