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Isaiah Thomas' first start with Wizards a small, but appreciated milestone

Isaiah Thomas' first start with Wizards a small, but appreciated milestone

WASHINGTON -- As you watch Isaiah Thomas, it is easy to wonder if we're observing the very early signs of a triumphant comeback story.

Once an All-NBA sensation, Thomas hit a modest personal milestone on Monday night in the Wizards' 115-99 win over the Detroit Pistons. He cracked the starting lineup for the first time with the Wizards.

It was his first start since March 14, 2018, and just his 16th start since his memorable 2016-17 season with the Boston Celtics, the last year he was an NBA star before a hip injury buckled his career.

Simply starting a game was not a surprise to him or anyone who has watched his first few games this season. Given his track record and recent progress, it seemed like only a matter of time before he overtook the starting job from Ish Smith, who is used to playing a back-up role at this point in his career.

But in the big picture, it was meaningful for Thomas and enough for him to get introspective about what it took to get here.

"It’s been a long road for me the last couple years. I just really put in the work to finally get healthy and to be able to start," he said. "I'm never going to quit. No matter what, I've been through real-life situations that are bigger than basketball."

Thomas, 30, had right hip surgery in 2018 after a year of playing through a torn labrum. Before signing with the Wizards in the summer, he appeared in only 44 games the previous two years and split time between three teams. Last season, he only played in 12 games with the Denver Nuggets and averaged 15.1 minutes.

It was a sharp fall after he had put together consecutive All-Star seasons in Boston. But he also went through plenty off the court, as he referred to as "real-life situations." His sister, Chyna, passed away in a car accident and his friend, rapper Nipsey Hussle, was murdered.

All in a span of two years, Thomas has had to fight to save his career while dealing with multiple tragedies. He credits his family for getting him through it.

"It was tough but my kids, to be honest, they kept me going. They know who I really am so they know what I've been through," he said. "I looked my kids in their eyes and that's probably what kept me going."

What Thomas has already done in the NBA, at his size, is remarkable. He's only 5-foot-9, currently the smallest player in the league.

Thomas has made a life out of defying the odds and it is clear that confidence is a big reason why. He still has big goals for himself in the NBA, ones that make starting one game for a 2-4 team in November seem insignificant.

"I know who I am. I know I’m one of the best basketball players in the world," he said. "I know I want to be one of the best players that have ever played and I know I have a lot left in the tank. I'm only 30 years old."

So far with the Wizards, he has indeed proven he still has something left to show the basketball world. Now with four games under his belt, he's averaging a solid 14.5 points and seven assists per game while shooting 43.1 percent from the field and 36 percent from three. The percentages are basically his career averages of 43.7 percent overall and 36 percent from long range.

If Thomas is ever to get back to playing at an All-Star level, he still has a long way to go to get there. But Monday night was one step along the way worth highlighting.

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Despite place in standings, Wizards believe playoffs aren't a pipe dream

Despite place in standings, Wizards believe playoffs aren't a pipe dream

WASHINGTON -- This may be the most realistic and self-aware Wizards team we have seen in a while. It wasn't long ago they had a penchant for talking big about what they believed they could accomplish. Nowadays, knowing where they are in the standings, their expectations are much more measured.

They know they are 12th in the Eastern Conference, even after beating the Pistons on Monday. They know their 14-28 record, which is 14 games under .500 and has them on pace to win 27 total games, isn't good.

But the Wizards are allowed to dream and they say making the playoffs is still something they would like to do.

"That's the goal, that's every day for us. [It's] in the back of my mind," shooting guard Bradley Beal said.

"I watch the games, I watch the standings and everything. We're not talking about it," head coach Scott Brooks said. "If that comes into play [we'll see]. The seventh and eighth seeds, the records aren't great."

There is certainly a case for that. The two teams currently occupying the bottom two playoff spots in the East have sub-.500 records. The seventh-ranked Magic are 20-23 and the Brooklyn Nets are in eighth with an 18-24 mark.

Last season, the Charlotte Hornets held up the Eastern Conference playoff bracket with a losing record as the eighth seed. They went 39-43, not good but still a much better pace than the Wizards are currently on. To win 39 games, they would have to go 25-16 the rest of the way.

Though they have shown some positive signs, going 4-4 in their last eight games, that would require going to a completely different level in the second half of the season. Still, there is no harm in maintaining their goals.

Beal, for one, has envisioned a way it can happen.

"Especially once All-Star hits, that second half is just flying. We have to tighten up and try to get some wins here before the break because that's usually the time when teams like to ease off the pedal a little bit. We have to take advantage of [that], that advantage of our schedule, take care of our bodies, and rally together," he said.

If the Wizards really, really wanted to go for the playoffs, they could try to add some pieces before the Feb. 6 trade deadline. But that should not be expected. In fact, this year's deadline for the Wizards likely won't be affected much at all by the playoff picture.

It's hard to envision them being buyers and they may not be able to be true sellers, either, due to injuries and other factors. Also, there is a belief in the front office that keeping a close distance in the playoff race could be a nice incentive for their young players, that having something to work for later in the season could help their development.

If the Wizards did somehow make the playoffs or even get close, that would be quite the surprise and it would say a lot about the direction of the organization. But in the long-term, it would seem to be more beneficial if they continue on their current course and end up with a top draft pick.

The Wizards right now have the fifth-worst record in the league. That would net them a lot of ping-pong balls for the draft lottery.

It seems likely that's where this season will end. But it doesn't hurt to try.

"We just want to play. We just want to finish the second half of the season playing better," Brooks said.

The Wizards are only 4 1/2 games back in the playoff race. Stranger things have happened.

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Yu Darvish lauds Rui Hachimura for 'exceptional' accomplish playing in the NBA

Yu Darvish lauds Rui Hachimura for 'exceptional' accomplish playing in the NBA

Rui Hachimura has attracted the best athletes Japan has to offer in his rookie season in the NBA. 

From Shohei Ohtani to Naomi Osaka, Hachimura has impressed both on and off the floor, including Cubs pitcher Yu Darvish. He stopped by to see Hachimura's Wizards beat the Pistons Monday. 

"That's right," Darvish said to the Wizards' Japanese website. "We are going to dinner after the game so I stopped by."

Darvish and Hachimura are represented by the same agency and are two of the biggest Japanese stars in American sports. Darvish has had two down years with the Cubs in 2018 and 2019, but he's still considered one of the best pitchers to ever come out of Japan. 

Hachimura, while sidelined with a groin injury, flashed plenty of potential as a rookie for the Wizards. Before going down, he was averaging 13.9 points and 5.8 rebounds while shooting 48.2 percent. 

Darvish admitted he didn't know much about basketball, not even what stats are good to use. But he only cares that Hachimura is having fun. 

Selected with the ninth pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, Hachimura became the first Japanese born player to be drafted in the top-10. Japan has produced a number of great baseball players but hasn't been able to produce as many hoopers. 

"You don't have to be tall or big to play baseball," Darvish said. "But when it comes to basketball, you have to be tall and athletic and contribute to the team on a nightly basis. I think what he's accomplishing is more exceptional."

Scott Brooks isn't sure if Hachimura will return before the beginning of February and the team has yet to provide a timetable beyond that. Hopefully, we'll see him back on the floor soon because an entire country outside of the US is watching and can't get enough. 

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