Wizards trying to find separation in crowded play-in tournament race

No team seems to understand the concept of “no lead is safe” in today’s NBA more than the Washington Wizards. 

Just before the All-Star break, the Wizards clawed back from a 20-point deficit to steal a game against the Minnesota Timberwolves. A week later, they blew a 19-point lead in a loss to the New York Knicks — the sixth time this season the Wizards led by at least 15 and lost. 

But if the Wizards want to make a push for the postseason, they’ll have to find stability at some point. With 22 games left in the season, Washington is the 10th seed in the Eastern Conference entering Monday’s action — meaning the team would be in the league’s play-in tournament as of now. But the Wizards could see that position change quickly as they have a pivotal stretch of games coming up that figures to be important in determining the team’s playoff chances. 

On Tuesday in Atlanta, the Wizards play the eighth-seeded Hawks (31-30), then host the ninth-seeded Toronto Raptors (30-32) for consecutive games on Thursday and Saturday before facing off against the Milwaukee Bucks a day later. 

That four-game stretch, with the first three against similar teams on the fringe, could mean mobility — either up or down — for the Wizards.

“(We have to) remain poised,” Wizards center Daniel Gafford told reporters. “The last two games that we’ve had have been tough losses, but we’ve been learning as the guys have gone by. We have to learn, too, that we have to come out with a mindset to just go out and play ball. We have to make sure if we have a lead, to extend that lead and just do all the right things that help us succeed throughout the game.” 

Washington’s most recent loss — Sunday’s 102-82 defeat to the Chicago Bulls — didn’t do the team any favors. The Bulls, after all, are among the teams fighting to make the play-in and they gained ground by cutting Washington’s hold on the 10th seed to just half a game.

Over the last two losses, Washington has been unable to handle the opposing team’s physicality. The Knicks upped their defense in the second half, crashed the offensive glass and used bruiser Julius Randle to bully the Wizards in Friday’s loss. Then, on Sunday, Chicago pulled away late after holding Washington to just 37 second-half points.

Toronto, in particular, could present another challenge for the Wizards on the defensive end. The Raptors deploy several long, switchable wings and forwards — O.G. Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, Scottie Barnes — that have them ranked 15th in defense, though that’s a surprising dip from last year’s unit that ranked ninth. The Bulls and Knicks rated sixth and 14th defensively. 

It would help the Wizards significantly if starters Monte Morris and Kristaps Porzingis returned as both missed Sunday’s contest. Injuries have hurt Washington this season as Porzingis, Kyle Kuzma and Bradley Beal have only played 28 of 62 games together. The Wizards are 14-14 in such outings. 

The standings in the East, too, are tight. The Bulls (28-33) and the Pacers (27-35) sit behind Washington and Toronto, while the latter two trail the seventh-seeded Miami Heat (32-29) by no more than 3½ games. The conference has established a clear pecking order at the top with Boston, Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Cleveland.

Still, for the Wizards to make a run in the closing stretch, they would have to demonstrate a level of consistency that has been hard to find more than two-thirds through the season. The most optimistic argument that Washington may be capable of making a run could be that the team is 17-12 since Dec. 20 — five games over .500. 

But narrow that down further and the Wizards are 12-11 since the start of the new year, and 4-6 in their last 10 games. 

“It could be the seven, eight, nine, 10 (seed), but you can still get into the playoffs,” Kuzma said. “I feel like that should be the focus. Everybody’s kind of gearing up for that.” 

Source: WT