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Wizards have opening in DMV sports scene as NFL team wallows

paulpierceBy DERON SNYDER

The Washington Wizards would never wish misfortune upon their football counterparts. But the D.C. hoopsters certainly don’t mind reaping benefits in a market that’s weary of gridiron futility – and weary of dissecting it, digesting it and discussing it.

While Dan Snyder’s team continues to resemble a steaming pile of mess, the Wizards are off to their best start since President Nixon resigned. Even the specter of a prolonged absence from injury-plagued Nene can’t dampen spirits at Verizon Center, where the Atlanta Hawks visit for a road game Tuesday night.

The place was electric Friday night during the Wizards’ last contest there, when LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers were thumped in convincing fashion. A capacity crowd delighted in the 91-78 blowout as the Cavs trailed for the final 38 minutes. The victory was a nice bounce back following Washington’s first home loss two days earlier.

Knocking off the league’s most-hyped team was sweet.

But beating Milwaukee in Milwaukee on Saturday night was like eating vegetables: not as enjoyable but more important.

The Bucks represented a classic trap for the Wizards, who were at risk of being emotionally hung over after Friday’s nationally televised statement game. When Milwaukee opened a 15-point lead in the second quarter, it appeared Washington might waste an opportunity to secure back-to-back wins that real contenders devour.

Before the team flew to Milwaukee, Paul Pierce warned his mates about the pitfall that awaited. He also did something about it once the Wizards teetered on the edge, pulling them away by scoring 14 of his team-high (and season-high) 25 points in the second half.

“He’s ‘The Truth’ for a reason,” guard John Wall told reporters afterward. “It’s great to have a guy like that to take the pressure off you at times. He’s been in that situation multiple times, making big shots and big plays. He made big shots for us and that’s what we needed.”

Fans are giddy about the team’s 9-3 start, understandably so. While there are reasons to be cautious – the Wizards have feasted primarily on losing teams while falling to Miami, Toronto and Dallas – continued optimism is reasonable.

Much of it has to do with shooting guard Bradley Beal, who unlike the town’s beleaguered QB is following up a ballyhooed rookie season with more stellar play.

In only three games since returning from a left wrist injury, Beal has become one of the team’s best players again. Not even in game shape yet, he’s averaging 16.6 points on 51.2 percent shooting. His performance off the bench has only strengthened an already-solid second unit and coach Randy Wittman could opt to keep him in that role a bit longer.

But if Garrett Temple doesn’t rediscover his stroke soon, that could force Wittman’s hand. Temple hasn’t scored a basket in the last four games – going 0-for-11 from the field – and he’s only 2-for-26 in his last seven games. With the possibility of Martell Webster returning soon, Temple is likely to slide further down the bench, which isn’t a bad thing.

That would show off the team’s depth, which has been outstanding but might be tested even further.

Nene played just six minutes Saturday before sitting out with a right plantar fascia injury; forward Otto Porter Jr. didn’t dress due to a sore hamstring. Porter isn’t nearly as much of a concern as 32-year-old Nene, who has missed significant time in D.C., including for plantar fasciitis in his left foot and a sprained left medial collateral ligament.

With Kris Humphries and Kevin Seraphin playing well as the first two bigs off the bench, and with Drew Gooden also available, the Wizards should be able to withstand Nene’s short-term absence. Wittman also can unchain DeJuan Blair, the free-agent signee who has been shackled to the pine for six consecutive games.

Regardless of the competition they have gorged on, the struggle against upper-echelon teams and the injuries that lessened the whole, the Wizards have established themselves as polar opposites of Washington’s NFL team.

The backcourt features young, rising talents who form one of the league’s top tandems. Heady, steady veterans fill out the ruged frontline. The reserves are productive contributors who play their roles well and without complaint.

They’re off to a fast, promising start, matching expectations and lining up with last season’s strong finish.

Out in Ashburn, five long weeks remain on the NFL schedule and all indications suggest more dreariness ahead.

The Wizards aren’t glad about that.

But if it serves as a juxtaposition for what they’re offering this season, they’ll take it and hope area residents follow suit.

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