CHICAGO — Sometimes, all you need to do is hang around.
Picked by many to be a top seed in the Eastern Conference, the Washington Wizards' season started with the loss of Paul Pierce in free agency, injuries to key players and little consistency from anyone besides John Wall.
But in a suddenly competitive playoff race, they're hanging around, in as good of a position as anyone to gain ground.
Sharpshooter Bradley Beal has missed the Wizards' last 16 games with a leg injury, and in Monday night's 114-100 win over the Chicago Bulls, Washington was also without power forward Kris Humphries (starter for 50% of available games this season) and center Marcin Gortat (full-time starter). Nene (last year's starting power forward) returned to the lineup after missing 20 of the last 22 games with calf and triceps injuries.
With that kind of inconsistency in the rotation comes up-and-down results on the court: a four-game winning streak, then a stretch of five losses in six outings and now a two-game winning streak heading into a home-heavy rest-of-January.
But despite the injuries and disappointing start, the Wizards are only two games out of the eighth seed and feeling good about where they stand two-and-a-half months into the season.
"We're trying to shore up our rotation, but every night's been different," forward Jared Dudley said. "If we can keep plugging these wins, get over that .500 mark—the East, as you've seen, some teams are starting to lose games, and we're trying to be right there."
Monday's balanced effort aside (seven Wizards scored in double figures, including three bench players), it's been Wall keeping Washington afloat. He's scoring and facilitating, averaging 19.6 points, 4.1 rebounds, 9.6 assists and 2.1 steals per game while playing 35.7 minutes per game.
"My whole career, I've always been the kind of guy to try to pass and get other guys the ball," Wall said. "I like to be a pass-first point guard, so if guys can't make shots, I [still] believe in them—just like in my career. If I couldn't make shots, guys would tell me I have to have the confidence to shoot the ball. No matter what. These guys do a great job putting in the work."
The Wizards feed off Wall's energy, and everything they do runs through him.
"He's our beat," Dudley said. "Kind of like how for the Bulls it's Joakim Noah. For us, it's John. When he has that energy and he's flying around, it's so contagious to our team. He has a lot of pressure on him, because right now without Brad he has to do it all. It's incredible what he's doing with this team, putting us on his back."
Even with Wall's stellar play, Washington can only do so much as a one-man show. Monday's win included an encouragingly poised performance from the bench—something the Wizards will need more of if they want to stay in the playoff race as winter turns to spring.
"We won at Miami, we won at Memphis, we beat Cleveland," Dudley said. "I don't know if we play down or what; I just think that we're inconsistent on when to run and when not to run. Sometimes it's getting rebounds; sometimes it might be on John because he's tired. He's really the one-man fast break we have. It's easier to run when you get misses. Consistency is key."
One thing that has been consistent is Wall's ability to bring it night after night. He's played through various nicks and bruises, as he has done in the past.
"There was stuff that could have kept me out of the lineup," Wall said. "But I know how much it means to our team. If it's something that's not going to jeopardize me, or make me be injured for a long time, I just keep playing the right way. If it's something that can injure me for a long time, I would sit out, but if it's something that I can play through, I know how much my team needs me. I'm just trying to help us get on a winning streak."
It's not the first time Wall has soldiered through pain. He played in the 2015 playoffs with a fractured left wrist.
"That's him," Washington head coach Randy Wittman said. "He's going to play. He doesn't feel the greatest, but that's who he is. He loves playing. He loves the game. He doesn't like sitting out. It took five broken bones to get him to sit out last year, and then he still came back. That's who he is. He's obviously the motor for us, and when he moves the ball like that and sees floor like that, it just makes everybody better—makes everybody's job a little bit easier."
Wall's willingness to play hurt, to do whatever the team needs him to do, is keeping the Wizards relevant while they wait for Beal and Gortat to return to the lineup.
"We're trying to get consistent," Dudley said. "We'll go home; we'll lose two in a row to some teams that you think are going to be in the lottery. For us, we're trying to be here. We're trying to build that confidence, build some of these wins and then eventually we'll get Brad back. Brad takes us to a whole other level—gives us another elite scorer."
For now, all that matters is keeping their heads above water. The Wizards play the Toronto Raptors, Oklahoma City Thunder and Golden State Warriors in the next three weeks and will head into the All-Star break on a three-game road trip, with a much more forgiving schedule on the other side.
Until then, they have to keep doing what they've been doing and stay in the conversation.
"I think we're fine," Wall said. "We want to be higher than what we are right now, totally. But we have a lot of injuries, and a lot of teams are healthy. The main thing with us is to just try to keep it close, keep it around .500. If we can get above .500 and get everybody back healthy, hopefully we can go on our own streak."
All quotes obtained firsthand.