The Washington Wizards have been an enigma in 2013-14 by mixing impressive wins with letdown losses. Is it possible, however, that this squad could put together a dark-horse postseason run?
The Wizards finally appear to be hitting their stride at 30-28—two games ahead of the No. 6 Brooklyn Nets. They’ve won five games in a row and are coming off an impressive 134-129 triple-overtime victory against the upstart Toronto Raptors. Whether they have enough pieces and team chemistry to compete on the highest stage, though, remains to be seen.
Nene's knee injury, a collection of overtime losses and overall inexperience cast some doubts, but the Wizards are undoubtedly an NBA team on the rise.
Nene’s Injury/Gortat’s Emergence
Injuries have been an ongoing theme with Brazilian big man Nene. The 31-year-old sustained a sprained MCL in his left knee during the Feb. 23 matchup against the Cleveland Cavaliers. He's expected to miss four to six weeks, per Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski.
Nene is expected to be lost to the Wizards for four-to-six weeks, league source tells Yahoo.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojYahooNBA) February 24, 2014
Nene has been a huge measuring stick for Washington’s success over the years, as the team is 60-61 with him and 10-34 without him, per ESPN.
That narrative has continued in 2013-14. The Wizards were 1-6 without the valuable interior presence prior to his latest setback.
Washington has only played two games thus far since Nene’s knee injury, but it is 2-0 in those contests. That includes a 115-106 win over the Orlando Magic on Feb. 25 and the aforementioned overtime victory against Toronto.
Although losing the 12-year veteran is a huge blow to the Wizards’ overall talent level, Marcin Gortat has stemmed the bleeding by playing arguably the best basketball of his career.
The Polish center has rattled off six straight double-doubles dating back to Feb. 18. Randy Wittman’s crew posted a 5-1 record during that span. Gortat's torrid streak includes monster games with Nene sidelined.
Against Orlando—the big man’s former squad—Gortat scored 21 points on 9-of-13 shooting to accompany 10 rebounds and two assists.
In the marathon against the Raptors, the former second-round draft pick played a whopping 51 minutes, scoring a career-high 31 points on 12-of-23 shooting to go with 12 rebounds and four blocked shots before he fouled out.
The performance was arguably the best of Gortat’s roller-coaster career.
"The feeling is great," Gortat said after the game, per The Associated Press (via ESPN). "We won the game, we've proven that we can beat this team. We really build the chemistry, we really build the team spirit with this win."
Coach Wittman needed his other resident big to raise his level of play with Nene out, and he’s proven himself to be up to the challenge.
Now the Wiz will have to see if Gortat can sustain his stellar play in the face of a larger workload, as well as when Nene returns to action.
Execution in Close Games
While the Wizards have climbed back over .500 by winning five straight, their execution in tightly contested games has been an area of concern.
Prior to the overtime win against Toronto, Washington had compiled a disappointing 2-6 record in games that weren’t decided by regulation. So not only have the Wizards competed in a number of close games—suggesting they can’t put teams away or mount complete comebacks—they’ve also failed to deliver in the final five minutes of crunch time.
Without the big man for the foreseeable future, though, the Wizards may ultimately struggle to put up points down the stretch.
He’s been a security blanket for years in Washington’s system, so now Wall and co. will have to find different strategies to score points.
Can the Backcourt Carry Them?
As John Wall and Bradley Beal go, so go the Washington Wizards.
At 23 and 20 years old, respectively, the Wall/Beal tandem makes up arguably the most talented young backcourt in the NBA. But can those two studs carry the Wizards in a playoff series with an evident lack of experience?
Wall has never competed in a playoff game during his NBA career, while Beal is still getting his feet wet in the Association after injuries limited him to 56 appearances as a rookie.
Realistically speaking, those two will have to display ice-cold demeanors in the postseason by playing within themselves and not trying to force the action. That’s especially true for Wall, as his game is predicated on aggressive drives to the bucket.
Where will the Wizards finish in the Eastern Conference standings?
Regardless of whether the Wizards get bounced in the first round or make a run to the Eastern Conference semifinals, the young players will earn valuable experience that will benefit them in the long run.
Washington's reliance on inexperienced young guards—regardless of talent level—may ultimately lead to the team's demise in the playoffs, especially if it runs into a veteran roster like the Chicago Bulls or Brooklyn Nets in Round 1.
Despite a season-best win streak of five, the Wizards are still just two games over .500 in the embarrassingly poor Eastern Conference. They have a balance of young talent, star power and veteran pieces, but they'll still be considered an unproven team until they shut up the critics.