In the eyes of many, we’re living in an alternate universe filled with alternative facts. But not even that phenomenon fully explains what’s happening in downtown D.C.
The Washington Wizards are the NBA’s hottest team, 11-2 in their last 13 games. They have suffered back-to-back losses just once since Dec. 2. With New York in town Tuesday, Washington is a half-game out of the No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference, which means the Wizards are a threat to host a playoff-series opener for the first time since 1979.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The Washington Capitals have taught us better than that.
With the midseason break complete and the second half set to resume, the Caps have the NHL’s best record. All-Stars Alex Ovechkin and Braden Holtby delivered big plays for the Metropolitan Division on Sunday, just as they’ve been instrumental in Washington’s 13-2 record in the last 15 games. The Caps haven’t lost two straight since Dec. 29.
D.C. sports fans are forgiven for not knowing what to think. Pessimism is our default mindset and it’s totally understandable. Goings-on at Verizon Center never work out quite right for the Wizards or Capitals, who occupy different ends of the spectrum but disappoint nonetheless.
Is it even possible to get excited about the Capitals’ record as the calendar flips to February? If so, it’s neither sensible nor defensible. The Caps have won six division titles in the last nine seasons. They also failed to reach the conference finals during that span.
How pumped should we be about the Wizards? Point guard John Wall is the franchise’s first four-time All-Star since Elvin Hayes was named to eight teams and helped Washington reach the NBA Finals in 1977-78 and 1978-79. The Wizards haven’t survived the first round on the vast majority of subsequent, infrequent postseason ventures, advancing to the semifinals just four times in the last 37 seasons.
However, two of those “deep” playoff runs are recent vintage, allowing fans to be a bit more hopeful and a lot less jaded about the Wizards compared to the Capitals. After winning a series and extending the next round to six games in 2013-14 and 2014-15, the Wiz were thought of as rising contenders in some quarters, only to miss the playoffs last season and get coach Randy Wittman fired.
First-year coach Scott Brooks has infused the team with newfound confidence, especially after a ragged 2-8 start. He’s the breath of fresh air battling against the stale wheezing of general manager Ernie Grunfeld. Brooks’ experience with the Oklahoma City Thunder – leading them to the conference finals thrice and the NBA Finals once – along with the emergence of small forward Otto Porter and the resurgence of power forward Markieff Morris, give Washington a respected coach and upper-echelon starting lineup to complement Wall, shooting guard Bradley Beal and center Marcin Gortat.
We’re unaccustomed to the Wizards being more than the butt of jokes locally and nationally. The recent hot streak has made everyone reconsider.
It also demonstrates how much we take the Capitals for granted. We yawn at the Caps’ success under third-year coach Barry Trotz. Bruce Boudreau made winning commonplace at Verizon Center. The rarified air when the hardwood is down is just ho-hum when the rink is erected. Playoff-starved Wiz fans would gladly accept the hockey team’s postseason shortcomings, while red-rocking fans can’t fathom the droughts routinely endured by their hoops’ counterparts.
In essence, the Caps’ success simultaneously serves as encouragement and caution for D.C. sports fans as the Wizards thrust themselves forward.
Sustained excellence comes in all shapes. Only a handful of franchises produce jumbo runs like the Detroit Red Wings (26 consecutive playoff appearances with six trips to the Stanley Cup Finals and four titles), or the San Antonio Spurs, (19 straight playoffs with six appearances in the NBA Finals and five championships).
The New England Patriots’ run – playoff games in 14 of the last 16 seasons with seven Super Bowl berths and four Lombardi Trophies – is the standard for outrageous success in the NFL. But does that mean we’re wrong to “celebrate” Washington posting back-to-back winning seasons for the first time since 1997?
The Yankees reached the postseason 17 times in 18 seasons from 1995-2012, with seven World Series appearances and five crowns. Yet, aren’t we justifiably happy that the Nationals have been playoff participants for three of the last five seasons (regardless of results), especially when you consider the Colorado Rockies haven’t had a winning record during that period?
All of the winning is relative when your team is compared to the champ at season’s end. The big picture is great, but the bottom-line doesn’t have room for a group shot. It’s reserved for one franchise at a time.
However, there’s nothing subjective about living in the present. And at this moment, the Wizards and Capitals are among the best teams in their respective leagues. Considering how these situations usually work out in D.C., that’s reason to rejoice.
Do it now while you still have time.