The Washington Wizards have gotten used to hearing the words “seven of eight.”
First, the Wizards won seven of eight in February, a crucial streak that helped erase an early-season hole. But for all the progress, Washington proceeded to lose the next seven of eight. Now, weeks later, the Wizards have somehow done the unexpected again: They’ve won — you guessed it — seven of their last eight games.
“We literally play every other day,” guard Bradley Beal said after Monday’s win over the Oklahoma City Thunder, the team’s fifth straight victory. “So you literally have to approach it as a day at a time. The schedule is so crazy.”
Don’t look now, but the Wizards’ win streak has actually put them back in the midst of a tight playoff race. Entering Wednesday’s contest against the Golden State Warriors, Washington (24-34) sits tied with the Chicago Bulls for 10th in the Eastern Conference — the last spot available under the NBA’s new play-in tournament format (seeds seven through 10 qualify for a tournament to determine the last two playoff spots). They can jump to 10th outright if the Wizards beat the Warriors and the Bulls lose to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Wizards coach Scott Brooks, too, said he doesn’t expect his team to regress as they did before. He noted the Wizards are mostly healthy, aside from Rui Hachimura being day to day with left knee soreness. He said the Wizards’ defense and rebounding have been much better during this stretch.
“They’re two totally separate situations,” Brooks said. “We’re just going to continue to focus on playing good basketball.”
For most of the season, Washington looked like it was unable to make a push. The team seemed sluggish after a three-week pause due to a coronavirus outbreak early in the year. Injuries also prevented the Wizards from truly jelling, whether it was Russell Westbrook’s nagging quad or Davis Bertans’calf. And there were enough holes on the roster — specifically the lack of perimeter defenders — that created questions about if management overestimated the Wizards’ ability to compete.
The Wizards, though, are finally playing up to their potential — doing so in unconventional ways. Brooks is deploying a legitimate three-man center rotation, playing Alex Len, Robin Lopez and trade-deadline pickup Daniel Gafford. In Monday’s win, the trio combined for 39 points and 11 rebounds on 16-of-18 shooting — despite no player logging more than 17 individual minutes. Lopez led the big men at 16:07.
Asked if the experiment was going better than he expected, Brooks paused before saying, “Uh, yeah.” The Wizards have relied on a different skill set from each big. Len provides a rim protector, while Lopez helps box out and uses a crafty hook shot to be a reliable presence in the paint. Gafford, meanwhile, is Washington’s only true lob threat and a remarkable shot blocker.
Other valued contributions include Bertans’ 3-point shooting (6-of-12 in Monday’s win from deep) and Westbrook’s intensity. The former MVP continues to rack up triple-doubles, with Westbrook now just 10 away from breaking Oscar Robertson’s all-time record of 181.
The Wizards’ push has left Beal in the rare position of having to do less than normal. On Monday, Golden State’s Steph Curry jumped Beal as the NBA’s scoring leader. Curry’s 49 points Monday put his season average at 31.4 points per game, topping Beal’s 31.1.
Beal scoffed at the suggestion Monday that his numbers have dipped lately. “I don’t know what ‘numbers down’ means,” he said with a smile. “I hear what you’re saying in a way, but 30 is still 30.” But since the All-Star Break, he’s averaging 27.4 — down five points from his 32.9 before the pause.
Beal’s average has improved to 29.7 in the span that the Wizards have won seven of eight, but the point remains that Washington isn’t needing the three-time All-Star to go berserk to pull out a win.
“I don’t need to score 40 or 50 every night because I have a lot of help on our team,” Beal said. “I don’t need to do that. Would I like to win (the scoring title)? 100%. But I’m not trying to go out each and every night, chucking the ball up to try and win a scoring title. I want to try and get in the playoffs and help my team win.”
Coincidentally, the Warriors are also in the thick of the playoff race — and would also be in the play-in tournament if the postseason started today. Curry is finding himself in a similar situation to Beal, and has been lighting up the NBA of late. This month, Curry has averaged 40.7 points per game and has shot 72-of-143 from deep — in 10 games.
When the teams face off, the attention will, understandably, be on Beal and Curry. And for the first time this season, the Wizards will be allowed to have fans in attendance, capped at a crowd of 2,100.
“The mayor and the organization, they picked a great game to have fans,” Brooks said.