AT FULL STRENGTH
With all starters back, Wizards heating up in jumbled East
Scott Brooks tried to explain then in the same way he tries to explain now. When the Washington Wizards were 2-8, playing wobbling and sporadic basketball, their coach would point out that All-Star John Wall was not playing in back-to-back games. Bradley Beal was on a minutes restriction when he did play following a hamstring injury. These were facts, even though when Brooks stated them, they sounded like excuses, which made him immediately say they were not.
After a Sunday afternoon 117-110 win against one of the Western Conference heavies, the Los Angeles Clippers, Brooks again pointed out that there was stop-and-start early with their personnel. He allowed that there has been improvement for the team to win five of its last six, six of the last eight and have a checklist of should-have games. But, a simple fact is all the starters are back. The team is suddenly hot now that the grouping of the talented first five has settled off.
“We are playing better,” Brooks said. “No question I am happy we are playing
better. We are winning games. We are rewarded by playing hard. Early in the season, we were in a lot of ball games. For whatever reasons it didn’t go our way to end games. We didn’t put our heads down. We just kept plugging away.”
The Eastern Conference is so jumbled, the Wizards’ wayward start did not send them into deep water. At 2-8, the vibe was misery filled. No surprise. But, the rest of the conference spent time exchanging punches outside of the top, where the reigning champion Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors are. The Wizards’ three-game winning streak has dragged them within two games of the three seed despite being 11th in the conference. Merely squaring their record by the end of December should position Washington in the middle of the conference.
“There’s a lot of parity in the East,” Brooks said. “The third seed has 12 losses. We have 14 … There’s a lot of basketball to be played.”
Two overarching factors have yanked the Wizards back to a respectable position.
The first is Beal. Washington provided him a maximum contact in the offseason to stay and work with threetime All-Star John Wall. Beal’s production through his first four seasons had been good but largely flat. He was often injured. He also had clear spots in his game to improve, notably his free throw attempts and driving to the rim more often. He’s done both with aplomb thus far this season, finding the extra layers to go with his already stable 3-point shooting. He scored 41 points against the Clippers on Sunday, his second game of 40 or more points this season. The last two Wizards players with multiple 40-point games in a season are Gilbert Arenas and Michael Jordan.
“Brad looked like a totally different person,” Clippers point guard Chris Paul said. “A lot more aggressive. This is the Bradley Beal he should be all the time. Tonight he was aggressive, which, in order for this team to be as good as they want to be, he has to be like that.”
Beal is averaging 22.8 points per game. He shot 11 free throws Sunday, pulling his average number of attempts close to five per game. It’s the same style he used during the 2015 playoffs, an approach then that the Wizards hoped would be sustainable for a season. Thus far, it is.
Washington is also playing better defense. So much so, Beal was hardly asked about his scoring against the Clippers. The topics were anchored in the team’s opposition to Paul, Los Angeles shooting guard J.J. Redick and power forward Blake Griffin. Wall and Beal were responsible for Paul and Redick. Markieff Morris handled Griffin much of the night.
Washington schemed to leverage Griffin into midrange jump shots. His quality start of 18 points at halftime fizzled into just eight second-half points and zero in the fourth quarter. Washington shot a stunning 80 percent in the final 12 minutes.
“The biggest thing is we’re just playing defense,” Beal said of the recent run. “That’s all it is. We were never really concerned with our offense. We feel like we’ve got enough guys [who] can score. We’ve got a lot of guys who can make plays. So, it wasn’t necessarily our offense we were worried about. It was our defense and getting stops and doing whatever it took to get those stops. The last couple of games, we’ve been able to do that. I think we’re actually starting to hold ourselves accountable on the defensive end more individually and together as a team than we were early. We’re realizing that we can’t win unless we defend.”
The Clippers came into the game with 20 wins and high-reaching expectations. Questions if they could win the Western Conference, pulling it away from the Golden State Warriors, were starting to percolate. At the same time, the Wizards were putting together recent wins against the less-than-mighty Brooklyn Nets, Milwaukee Bucks and Denver Nuggets. That was before Sunday capped three consecutive victories against quality opponents including the Charlotte Hornets, Detroit Pistons, then the Clippers, a trio of wins preceding a week-long road trip that starts Monday in Indiana.
“We showed our hand,” Beal said. “There’s no excuses for us moving forward.”
Washington Wizards guard John Wall gets the fans excited in the final seconds of a 117-110 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers on Sunday.
Washington Wizards guard Bradley Beal defends against Los Angeles Clippers guard Chris Paul in the first half on Sunday. Beal scored 41 points in a 117-110 Wizards win.