- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 7, 2020

On his way toward the team bus Monday, Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens ran into his counterpart, Scott Brooks and stopped for a brief chat. He complimented the Wizards coach for the win and raved about how fun Washington is to watch.

The exchanged seemed genuine. After all, lately, the Wizards have pulled off the improbable: They beat the Miami Heat, Denver Nuggets and the Celtics in the span of a week.

Those teams have a combined record of 76-30, good for a .716 win percentage. And somehow, the 12-24 Wizards prevailed, despite missing Bradley Beal and a long list of other players.

In each of their wins, the Wizards have been playing hard. Players dive for loose balls. They crash the basket for rebounds. They drive to the paint and make the correct pass.

It’s the sort of effort the Wizards have mostly had all season — and it’s starting to pay off.

“We’re embodying who coach Brooks is,” guard Ish Smith said. “Coach Brooks is a fighter and that’s who he was his whole career. I think we’re doing a great job of doing that these last few games.”

Smith’s remark is an astute observation. There are parallels with the Wizards’ roster and Brooks‘ playing career. As a player, Brooks went undrafted out of UC Irvine and bounced around on six teams across 10 seasons. But he also became a steady rotation player with the Houston Rockets.

With eight players under 25, the Wizards have a large number of unproven players eager to make an impression. Forwards like Anžejs Pasečņiks and Garrison Mathews are on two-way contracts. Others like 20-year-old Issac Bonga and 22-year-old Admiral Schofield were considered fringe prospects, wanting to show they belong in the league.

Even Smith, who received “MVP” chants Monday for scoring 59 points in the last two games, has played for 12 teams in 10 seasons. A true journeyman, the 32-year-old signed a two-year deal in the summer after the Wizards lost Tomas Satoransky in free agency and knew John Wall was out with an Achilles injury.

So often last season, the Wizards looked lethargic as they dragged their way to a 32-50 record. Veterans like Jeff Green, Trevor Ariza and Markieff Morris had inconsistent effort. Brooks called out Otto Porter’s lack of aggressiveness. Kelly Oubre, before he was traded, was blamed for not sticking in his role.

None of those problems have haunted the Wizards this year — allowing them to play free.

“I love coaching these guys,” Brooks said. “I love being around them. … They’re hungry. That’s part of the game, you got to stay hungry, and we have guys that are hungry now.”

Against the Celtics, the Wizards even were a feisty defensive team, a strange sight given Washington ranks dead-last in defensive rating. But Washington held its opponent to under 100 points for the third time all season.

In the first quarter, the Wizards held Boston to only 17 points — two nights after holding the Nuggets to 19 points. Both were season-bests for Washington.

Part of the defensive turnaround, Brooks said, was that Washington’s starters haven’t played as of a hectic pace of late, focusing more on making stops. He also pointed out the Wizards’ youth, suggesting game-plans are starting to click better midway through the season.

Who knows how long this can last? It’s not likely Smith will keep scoring at this rate, nor is it a guarantee the Wizards will compete defensively. There are 46 games left in the season, and Washington is still one of the teams in the league’s lower tier.

But the Wizards saw growth over this span, something they will take. 

“I feel like just this week was the week that we actually went and we set our minds to doing what we said we were going to do,” forward Troy Brown said.

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