Calling the Wizards’ progress “baby steps” isn’t quite accurate, not when they sport the Eastern Conference’s second-best record and are tied with Dallas for seventh-best in the NBA.
No, the halting strides toward full-blown contender came last season, when Washington emerged to knock out Chicago in the playoffs’ first round and made Indiana labor through six games in the conference semifinals.
A consensus postseason pick when this season began, the Wizards have exceeded the advance billing with unforeseen contributions (Kris Humphries and Rasual Butler), wizened veteran play (Paul Pierce and Andre Miller) and next-level development (John Wall). The team is humming at 30-15 entering Tuesday’s road game against the Los Angeles Lakers.
For perspective, Washington failed to win at least 30 games in five consecutive campaigns before tallying 44 victories last season.
So it’s not that the Wizards’ marked advancement goes unnoticed and unappreciated. However, they also produce levels of frustration when they leave wins on the court, fold against beatable elite-level teams or succumb to bottom-feeders.
We love the improvement.
But the growing pains can be excruciating.
Before embarking on their current four-game swing, the Wizards let another winnable game morph into an agonizing loss. Oklahoma City forced overtime at Verizon Center, outscoring Washington 54-44 in the second half, and prevailed on Russell Westbrook’s layup with 0.8 seconds left.
Then in Portland on Saturday, Washington was outscored 60-41 in the second half and lost by seven points. The Wizards blew double-digit leads in both games and continued to suffer from inopportune turnovers and droughts on offense.
“We just fail to continue to play the right way in the second half,” shooting guard Bradley Beal told reporters after the Portland game. “We get away from what’s working for some reason. We can’t seem to figure it out but we need to figure it out soon. We’re playing a bunch of tough, playoff-caliber teams and we can’t afford to do this.
“We have such large leads and we have to do whatever it takes to sustain them. Even if they go on a run we can go on a run right back, but we fail to do that. We just allow them to keep the game close and we don’t make plays. We just beat ourselves too much, honestly.”
It’s all part of the growth process, learning to keep separation, clinch close games, blow out inferior competition, win with sub-par performances and bounce back on back-to-backs.
Resiliency is a character trait we’ve seen plenty of, though. The Wizards have just one three-game skid this season and didn’t let another sully their record Sunday night. They never enjoyed a lead larger than seven points in a back-and-forth thriller at Denver that produced 10 ties, 13 lead changes and one overtime. But Washington secured the win, 117-115, with stellar efforts from Wall (19 points, 16 assists) and Humphries (21 points, 14 rebounds).
“We have to do a better job still closing the games,” Pierce told reporters after his turnover with 2.9 seconds left nearly allowed Denver to force a second overtime. “We get leads and they evaporate. We got a (five-point) lead in overtime and it evaporated. It’s a learning curve and we’re still going through.”
There’s tremendous opportunity for a growth spurt as they finish their four-games-in-five-nights ordeal.
The Lakers have the league’s fourth-worst record and don’t have Kobe Bryant. Washington should pound the Lakers like it pounded Philadelphia (by 35 points) last week. Good teams settle matters early in such matchups and let the reserves enjoy extended garbage time.
Then it’s on to Phoenix to complete another back-to-back, another winnable contest against a team the Wizards should beat. That would allow Washington to return on a high note as it prepares for Toronto’s visit on Saturday.
The Raptors, just a half-game back in the East, blew out the Wizards in November. The rematch will provide the latest gauge to measure how far Washington has come since the season began.
Sunday’s win provided a glimpse, ugliness notwithstanding.
“I’m happy as heck, trust me,” coach Randy Wittman told reporters, referring to the victory, not his team’s 17 turnovers against Denver. “It’s hard to win in this league and when you get wins you have to be grateful. … It wasn’t our best game, but good teams find ways and I give them credit for that.
“We did enough things obviously to win, but we also have to clean up the other things.”
Growing pains aren’t particularly fun.
But they’re absolutely delightful compared to the alternative.