In an 82-game season, every team hits a skid and it usually happens more than once. After a 2-8 start, the Wizards are in the midst of another as they've lost 4 of 5 heading into Wednesday's home game with the Atlanta Hawks.
They were in control of most of the tiebreakers in the East, which could come down to them for playoff seeding if they have the same record as the Boston Celtics or Toronto Raptors.
The problem is, after routing the Raptors on their floor with a chance to win that series, the Wizards were routed at Verizon Center post-All-Star break. With a chance to seal their series with the Boston Celtics on Monday, the Wizards lost on the road to fall in a 2-2tie and will lose that tiebreaker to them because the next deciding factor is conference record. Boston's is better.
Even the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors go through stretches when questions arise about their championship mettle. It has happened at around the same time for Cavs for the second season in a row, and when the Warriors lost 5 of 7 recently.
The Warriors, by the way, are 56-14 and are missing their best player in Kevin Durant. They'll be fine. Kevin Love just returned from injury for the Cavs. They'll be fine, too.
Everyone is chasing them, and even though the Wizards (42-28) have missed some major opportunities, they're virtually assured a top four seed -- which means home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs -- at worst. Given the projections about this team going into the season, and most certainly after the first month, this isn't a time to panic.
They have a good chance of holding onto the No. 3 spot and staying ahead of the No. 4 Raptors who they lead by just one game with 12 left in their season. The Celtics have a soft schedule and are likely to maintain their No. 2 spot, but Toronto doesn't have an easy road. Plus they're playing without their best playmaker in Kyle Lowry who is out with a wrist injury.
The pressure should be off the Wizards to do too much. They can accept their fate -- is settling for the third spot in the East now considered a letdown? -- worry only about Toronto and game plan for the postseason.
What has to happen?
– The two best players, John Wall and Bradley Beal, have to be the two best players. In his last five games, Wall has shot 29 of 75 (39%). A double-double machine, he has only managed two in that stretch. Beal is 15-for-41 from three-point range (35.7%).
– The top three-point shooter for most the season, Otto Porter, has been absent. He's getting more attention in coverages and requires being set up to be effective. Porter isn't a one-on-one player who can get his own shot. If there's not adequate pace and ball movement in the offense, Porter suffers. And defenses are no longer just giving him space to take what he wants when he wants. With the exception of the loss to the Charlotte Hornets when Porter was 4 of 9 from three, he's not getting off three-point looks to open the floor.
– There was a concerted effort made to get Marcin Gortat low-post touches to start games, especially when he had a size advantage against of Al Horford of the Celtics. That's how they got out on the right foot in their "funeral game" win over Boston because Horford doesn't have the size to deal with true fives on deep catches. In these last five games, Gortat hasn't scored more than eight points in any of them, and as he has been disengaged offensively it has tranlslated to the defensive end.
– The one-on-one defense has been better since the five-game West coast trip, but it's still not nearly good enough. The 20 offensive rebounds from the Celtics is an indication that the Wizards are slow to react to the ball, out of position and aren't putting bodies on the opponent to prevent the easy putbacks.
– Take a look at all of the hustle stats listed by the NBA.com/stats SVU tracking, and the Wizards are middle of the pack or at the bottom. They were No. 2 in the league in deflections per game for the season, only behind Golden State, and in this stetch they're 17th at 15.6. The Wizards are 19th in loose balls recovered at 7.4 per game. The Houston Rockets are No. 1 at 13.5 to get an idea of the difference. That's about six extra possessions per game gained or lost.
Almost all of these problems are fixable. Communication, hustle and toughness can be controlled. The missed shots cannot but they can generate better looks for themselves by getting those extra possesions that put them in transition. And the bench is playing significantly better.
Despite all of the road games, if the Wizards are truly worthy of a No. 3 seed they're still in solid position to get it. But it wouldn't be the NBA if getting there were easy.
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