- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Wizards coach Scott Brooks joked that he wished it was a leap year. 

Starting with Tuesday’s contest against the Portland Trail Blazers, the Wizards embark on a 16-game stretch across  February — and a jam-packed schedule that already has Brooks longing for any extra rest that his team could squeeze in. The slate includes five back-to-backs, only 11 days in which Washington won’t have a game scheduled and three games that were rescheduled because of the pandemic.

Despite the whirlwind ahead, February will likely go a long way in telling whether the Wizards can turn their season around. Entering Tuesday at 4-12, Washington has an opportunity to gain ground in the Eastern Conference in the coming weeks. Even with the league’s worst record, Washington is just two games back of being in position for the NBA’s play-in tournament and three-and-a-half back of the eighth seed.

The schedule is why Brooks said he is still optimistic about the Wizards recovering from their nightmare start.

“We have enough (talent),” Brooks said. “It’s unfortunate that we didn’t start the year off well, but I still believe in the group of guys that we have. This is going to give us an opportunity to make up some games. We need games. I keep saying that, but it’s true.”

The Wizards hope the upcoming stretch will allow them to get into a rhythm.  Brooks said he’s not a good “COVID coach” — Washington struggled when six players were sidelined with the virus, leaving Washington’s depth extremely thin. But the Wizards are now healthy and Brook said he thinks the month will help those who missed time get back up to speed. 

In particular, Washington will need Rui Hachimura, Davis Bertans and rookie Deni Avdija to return to form. After missing nearly three weeks because of the virus, all three have struggled shooting the ball. 

In Bertans’ case, those struggles extend beyond missing time for COVID-19. The 28-year-old Latvian is shooting just 32.7% from deep this season — a steep drop off from the 42.7% he shot last year. That’s a worrying sign given the Wizards re-signed Bertans to a five-year, $80 million contract in the offseason. Bertans arrived late to training camp because of visa issues and was on a minutes restriction to start the year due to a lack of conditioning. 

But repetition can help players break out of a slump, which is what Washington is banking on. 

“It’s definitely a gut feeling,” center Robin Lopez said when asked how the Wizards will know they’re in a rhythm. “It’s like I guess the obscenity laws in this country: You know it when you see it.” 

Washington’s February won’t be easy. Guard Russell Westbrook expressed concerns about playing that many games in such a short period, noting players could be more susceptible to injury. 

Washington has limited Westbrook’s availability on back-to-backs this season, and that’s likely to continue for this month. The 32-year-old is just starting to find a groove after missing games with a quad injury, and Washington does not want Westbrook re-injured. 

There’s also the challenge of Washington’s actual opponents. Of Washington’s 16 games, nine are against teams with a winning record. Washington has a chance to gain ground, but they have contenders like the Los Angeles Lakers (Feb. 22)  and Los Angeles Clippers (Feb. 23) on the docket. 

Westbrook, though, said the weeks ahead will be an opportunity for the Wizards to bond further. That’s been a challenge during the pandemic, with Westbrook telling reporters it’s been tough to organize team events and other activities that usually create chemistry. 

“It’s different, man,” Westbrook said. “We’ve got to find ways to be able to create continuity with  each other.” 

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