The front end of the Wizards' schedule is loaded, which is why I projected they'd go 17-13 before the 2015-16 season began. After Wednesday's loss to the Toronto Raptors, they're three games off that pace and have a significant stretch of games over the next two weeks that will make or break their season.
They'll play the Raptors again, Orlando Magic (twice), Miami Heat (twice), Cleveland Cavaliers, Chicago Bulls, Milwaukee Bucks, Indiana Pacers and Boston Celtics.
End this run of games with a winning record, and simultaneously putting the Wizards above .500 overall, and there's a chance they can enter the All-Star break with momentum and a chance at a top four seed with Nene, Drew Gooden, Bradley Beal and Alan Anderson back in the lineup:
- Play defense like they played vs. the Raptors. While they lost 94-91, the Wizards had a chance to win despite shooting 35 of 87 (40%) because they held the opponent to 28 of 82 (34%) and committed eight fewer turnovers (10). Blowout losses, like the one by 17 points to the L.A. Clippers earlier in the week, don't happen.
- Beal coming back. Just because the Wizards won a season-high four games in a row with their starting shooting guard out with a leg injury doesn't mean they're a better team without him. That's absolute nonsense. The parts, role players like Garrett Temple and Kelly Oubre, rose up to compensate for his absence which is a good thing. But that's short-term. For the long-term, the answer is Beal.
- Otto Porter shooting threes at 40% or better. He's 7-for-13 in his three games since returning from a left thigh bruise after shooting less than 28% for the season. Beal or no Beal, Porter is going to get these looks with John Wall and Beal being the focus of opposing defenses.
- Gary Neal to restore bench scoring. Granted, some of Neal's best scoring performances have come in losses but in a game like Wednesday's it would've put them over the top to get the win. The bench had 0 points in the first half when the Wizards trailed by 11. Ramon Sessions eventually scored 11 but Neal is a shooter who can stretch the floor while Sessions does his best work in the paint.
- Coach Randy Wittman's ATOs. After timeouts, the Wizards have been pretty solid all season compared to season's past. On an ATO set in crunch time in Toronto, Jared Dudley's three-pointer cut the deficit to 92-91 with 40 seconds left. They ran the "hammer" play, a staple of the San Antonio Spurs in similar situations, to perfection with the ball being moved from right to left for Wall who drives left, gets under the rim and falling out of bounds, delivering the pass with his left hand to find Dudley, who was freed sinking into the corner on the weakside by a back screen from Marcin Gortat. The timing has to be impeccable for it to work and it's an example of where the Wizards have gotten more efficient.