Winners of 11 of their last 13 games and recently putting together their longest winning streak in 20 years, NBA pundits and former players alike are starting to take notice of just how well the Wizards can play when at full strength.
The latest was Wizards starting point guard Russell Westbrook's former Thunder teammate and current ESPN analyst Kendrick Perkins, who joined the Wizards Pregame Live crew in a guest appearance to be aired ahead of Washington's showdown with the Raptors on Thursday night.
"This team ain't to be messed with," Perkins said.
As the Wizards have gotten healthier, both in terms of their COVID-19 outbreak to start the campaign and normal basketball injuries, the results have improved on a parallel course. Most notably has been Westbrook's incredible rise in production and energy compared to how he started the season, a period in which he revealed he had played through a torn quad.
Though starting center Thomas Bryant is still out for the season after tearing his ACL in January, Daniel Gafford has come in with a spark since coming over in a trade deadline deal with the Bulls. But general manager Tommy Sheppard's marquee offseason move for Westbrook is the one that's starting to look better by the day as Westbrook continues to stuff the stat sheet and mold Washington's youth into winners.
Westbrook's recent play has created matchup nightmares for opposing backcourts, as well as for the opposing coaches tasked with game planning against both he and the league's second-leading scorer, Bradley Beal.
"You can't, and that's the hard part about it," Perkins said of game-planning against Beal and Westbrook. "When you look at when Beal is on and Russell Westbrook is on at the same time, it's like, man, you gotta cross your fingers."
Perkins said only Beal's scoring title chase partner, Stephen Curry, is in the same category in terms of being able to score at such an efficient rate without needing the ball in his hands too often. Beal was forced to carry the offense and the team through long stretches in the first half of the season as Westbrook battled his injured quad, but with Westbrook closer back to his relentless, do-everything self, the Wizards have been clicking while other teams deal with injuries and personnel problems of their own.
"But you're looking at them and I'm looking at them right now in the 10th spot and I'm saying to myself, 'Man, they getting a play-in, they're going to win,'" Perkins said. "And if they get that eighth spot, whoever's in that No. 1 seed, they gotta be careful going up against these two."
The 76ers and Nets are vying for the right to have home court advantage for the entirety of the playoffs, and will be considered favorites no matter who they play in the first round thanks to their complete rosters.
Still, for a team that was 13 games under .500 a month-and-a-half ago, it's been a remarkable show of resiliency from Westbrook and company to get in contention for the newly formatted playoffs. Now at 30-35, Washington is a half game back of the Pacers, who they beat in a crucial game on Monday night, and are firmly in the play-in spots three games above the Raptors in the Eastern Conference standings.
The Wizards will need to win twice in the play-in tournament for a chance to steal that eighth seed for the playoffs, and if Westbrook and Beal continue to play at all-star levels, they'll have as a good an opportunity as anyone to make noise in the form of an upset in the first round should they qualify.
As contributors like sophomore power forward Rui Hachimura, the "feisty" Raul Neto and the court marshal Ish Smith also impressing Perkins, the Wizards are playing their best basketball when it matters most.
"I'm kind of loving the energy there in Washington now. They're bringing the chocolate back to chocolate city," Perkins said.