AT FULL STRENGTH

With all starters back, Wizards heat­ing up in jum­bled East

The Washington Times Daily - - SPORTS - BY TODD DYBAS

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.”

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

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.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

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.

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