- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 23, 2021

A team’s destiny is usually defined in games, on the court against an opponent. But the Washington Wizards may have found their identity in a pivotal, come-to-Jesus practice session that happened two weeks ago.

Before reeling off the five straight wins they had going into Tuesday night’s game against the Los Angeles Clippers, the Wizards held a practice in which each player laid out his expectations and defined his own role. 

Stuck at the bottom of the NBA with one of the worst records in the league, the Wizards challenged each other to step up.

The lay-it-all-out there meeting provided clarity — clarity that has fueled their improved play and helped the Wizards (11-17) climb to within a couple of games of the final playoff spot.

“It’s great for any team — our team, little-league team — it’s always great for everybody to know what their role and job is,” star Bradley Beal said. “It’s no knock on our abilities and what we’re doing, but it’s what we need as a team and what we need from certain guys. … We got down to the gist of what we require out of everybody.” 

Meetings, of course, don’t always translate to wins. If that was the case,  every teams’ problems would be easily solved. But in this case, the Wizards have responded with better defense, role players contributing and even Beal and co-star Russell Westbrook starting to click at a higher level. 

Of the Wizards’ recent victories, all but one came against clubs that were above .500. On Monday, they even topped the defending-champion Los Angeles Lakers in overtime with a 127-124 win.  That performance was arguably Washington’s best of the season: The Wizards rallied from 17 down and got contributions from a variety of players to top LeBron James and Co. 

In the backcourt, Westbrook and Beal seem to have figured out the rhythm of playing off each other. Against the Lakers, Beal led with 33 points and Westbrook added 32. Both shot over 50% from the field and combined for 15 assists, meaning they’re generating offense from others when attacking. 

Beal, though, noted the Wizards’ win over the Lakers went beyond the duo’s chemistry. He was right. Rookie Deni Avdija hit a pair of clutch 3-pointers in the fourth. Hachimura’s defense, which has taken a massive jump this season, was vital as the second-year pro helped slow James down the stretch. 

“That’s what we need for everybody to chip in order for us to win,” Beal said. “It’s just guys being ready.”

Washington’s better-defined roles also came with a lineup change. Prior to the win streak, coach Scott Brooks moved Garrison Mathews and Mortiz Wagner to the starting lineup — sending Avdija and veteran Robin Lopez to the bench.

Brooks has tinkered with lineups and relied heavily on Lopez, who has emerged as a crucial piece to Washington’s improved defense. When Lopez is on the floor, the Wizards have outscored teams by 62 points over their last five — good for 12 ½ points per contest. Lopez’s defensive rating is just 92.2 over that span, a team-best among players who see rotation minutes. 

As for the practice meeting two weeks ago, forward Rui Hachiura said Westbrook started the discussion by asking each player what their role was. Hachimura said he spoke up and talked about being a defensive stopper — and he credits Westbrook for helping him realize that he could fill that role.

Westbrook, Hachimura said, took the Japanese native aside prior to the season and told him that he’s the only one who could guard “one through five on this team.”

The advice helped his confidence, Hachimura said.

“We’ve been sticking together,” Westbrook said. “When you get caught up in everything else going on, teams and players tend to grow apart. But I know we’ve been staying together and communicating how we can be a better team. It’s been working for us.” 

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