The Wizards entered the All-Star break having won seven of their previous nine games since John Wall went down with an injury, so a natural question to head coach Scott Brooks looking ahead to their first game back on Thursday was how he and his team can keep that momentum going in the second half.
Brooks immediately pointed to the Wizards' schedule, which gets notably more difficult in the coming weeks. They have a stretch of games over the next month-plus that features the best teams in basketball and Brooks knows that will be a big factor in whether they can sustain what they have going.
"Definitely the schedule gets tougher," Brooks said. "We've got a lot of good teams coming up starting with the first one in Cleveland. It's five games in seven nights against really good teams."
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In the next five weeks, the Wizards will play 15 of 17 games against teams currently holding playoff spots. That includes the Cavaliers, Warriors, Celtics, Spurs (twice), Raptors and Timberwolves.
That will represent a marked shift for the Wizards, who to this point have the weakest strength of schedule. Though they boast impressive wins over the Celtics, Rockets, Raptors and Timberwolves, they are about to play teams of that caliber more frequently with few nights off to rest. They have four back-to-back sets all in the next three weeks.
The upcoming stretch has been on the Wizards' minds for a while. Several players referenced their tough schedule before the All-Star break, knowing those wins leading up to the time off could prove extra important in hindsight.
The Wizards return to action on Thursday night against the Cavaliers, a team that has already beaten them twice. Both of those games were against the old version of the Cavs before they traded much of their roster at the deadline.
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Gone are Dwyane Wade, Derrick Rose, Isaiah Thomas, Iman Shumpert, Jae Crowder and Channing Frye. But they still have that guy LeBron James.
"Shoot, they looked good the other time, right? They beat us twice with the other group," Brooks noted. "LeBron is going to go down as one of the best ever. They are younger and more athletic. They're a good team and they still have an All-Star in [Kevin] Love who hasn't played because he's hurt."
The Cavs haven't lost in three games since the All-Star break and that includes road wins over the Celtics and Thunder. They look rejuvenated and, at least so far, improved from the aging, incongruent roster they had just weeks ago.
The Wizards have also been playing better lately, of course, and this upcoming stretch will be a major test for them. Wall has been out three weeks since he had arthroscopic surgery on his left knee. He is likely to miss another three-to-five weeks. The Wizards will have to get through this without him.
If they can remain competitive and even beat some of these elite teams, they will only gain more confidence in their potential. That's the way Brooks plans to approach the schedule.
"We still want to be a better team when John comes back," Brooks said. "But the schedule definitely gets a lot tougher."
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