Tuesday NBA Roundup: Washington Wizards Emerging as Dark Horse Out East

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistFebruary 1, 2017

NEW ORLEANS, LA - JANUARY 29: John Wall #2 of the Washington Wizards reacts after scoring during the first half of a game against the New Orleans Pelicans at the Smoothie King Center on January 29, 2017 in New Orleans, Louisiana. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)
Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

The Washington Wizards are officially rolling, rolling, rolling, rolling.

Seriously: Big ups to these Wizards for letting us quote Limp Bizkit. They are now 22-8 over their last 30 games, with 15 straight victories at home, following a 117-101 shellacking of the New York Knicks on Tuesday night.

John Wall is a nightmare matchup for every NBA squad, but New York was particularly ill-suited to fend off his dribble penetration. Though he shot 6-of-18 from the floor en route to 15 points, he tallied 13 assists and one nifty spin move:

Bradley Beal chipped in 28 points and four assists on 12-of-18 shooting, and Markieff Morris continued his recent tear, posting 24 points on 9-of-14 attempts and 10 rebounds.

Marcin Gortat is still shooting roughly one jillion percent off passes from Beal and Wall, as he finished with 15 points (on a perfect 7-of-7 clip) and 10 boards. Otto Porter was quiet by his recent standards, especially considering the defensive matchups he faced, but he mustered 10 points, six rebounds, three assists and some nice second-half defense.

Granted, steamrolling the Knicks isn't anything special. They remain in disarray, with an offensive mentality that changes by possession. And as we saw at times Tuesday (take a 14-0 third-quarter Washington run, for instance), the defense often looks like it ranks 109th out of 30 teams. 

But it's difficult not to be giddy about these Wizards. They have gone from lucrative letdown to Eastern Conference terror in less than two months.

Washington ranks among the top seven of both points scored and allowed per 100 possessions since starting this 22-8 rampage on Dec. 5. No team in the Eastern Conference matches its net rating (plus-5.6) during this time, and only the Houston Rockets, San Antonio Spurs and Golden State Warriors have better marks overall.

Chemistry has reached an all-time high even more recently, as SB Nation's Mike Prada pointed out:

Golden State is the lone team with a better net rating than Washington during this latest 10-game stretch, through which the Wizards are no worse than fourth in either offensive or defensive efficiency.

Credit for this upswing can be doled out across the board. Kelly Oubre is doing a nice job of keeping the second-stringers afloat, head coach Scott Brooks isn't pretending the team can survive with less than two starters on the court and Morris is playing like a top-15 forward. 

Not one aspect of the Wizards' surge, though, has been more important than the play of their starting five.

Washington's starters have been on fire.
Washington's starters have been on fire.Ned Dishman/Getty Images

Beal, Gortat, Morris, Porter and Wall are blitzing opponents by 13.3 points per 100 possessions during this extended streak when they share the court. Everyone is partaking in the offensive festivities, and an engaged Morris has made for a fantastic one-two-three defensive punch beside Porter and Wall.

With the Cleveland Cavaliers struggling, Toronto Raptors experimenting (and also struggling) and San Antonio Spurs monitoring minutes, one can make the case that Washington's starters are currently the second-best in the business.

The Warriors' opening five, anchored by four All-NBA talents, will reign supreme until further notice. But the Wizards' starters rank as the league's second-most used lineup since Dec. 5. And of the 20 five-man units to see 155 or more minutes of action over this span, only Golden State's quintet owns a higher net rating.

There's no need to act like you foresaw this development. You didn't. None of us did. The Wizards are a revelation to everyone—including, it seems, themselves, per the Washington Post's Dan Steinberg:

Real questions await amid the latter part of Washington's schedule.

It faces a slew of hallmark games over the coming weeks, with tilts against the Cavaliers (Feb. 6), Oklahoma City (Feb. 13), Utah Jazz (Feb. 26), Warriors (Feb. 28) and Raptors (March 1 and 3). And then there's the matter of those non-starters, who still aren't doing many favors.

Not one of Washington's other lineups is seeing more than 5.5 minutes a game since the turn of the calendar. Four of the five starters are averaging north of 33 minutes each night, so the potential for burnout is real.

Ian Mahinmi might return before the All-Star break, per CSN Mid-Atlantic's J. Michael, which will be like adding a mid-end free agent. But with Washington playing small, he only helps alleviate Gortat's workload, while his repeated run-ins with knee injuries render him less than reliable.

The Wizards aren't likely to find a solution to their depth issues on the trade market, either. They don't have the assets to complete an impact deal. Mahinmi's four-year, $64 million pact is immovable, and Andrew Nicholson won't fetch much, even on a cap-friendly contract, when he can't stay on the floor.

Shipping out Oubre or any members of the starting five isn't an option. There's too much that can go wrong after the fact, and Washington isn't going to hit a home run without offloading one of Beal, Wall and Porter—all of whom are, at this stage, indispensable.

In all likelihood, the Wizards won't be able to change, and that's fine. Looking ahead to next season and beyond, they have to flesh out this skeleton crew. But right here, right now, they are two games back of the East's second seed, with protracted momentum on their side—an infectious intangible not to be understated.

Eastern Conference Standings
WLGBLast 10
1. Cleveland Cavaliers3215-4-6
2. Boston Celtics30182.57-3
3. Toronto Raptors301934-6
4. Washington Wizards28204.59-1
5. Atlanta Hawks28204.56-4
6. Indiana Pacers252276-4
7. Chicago Bulls242595-5
8. Charlotte Hornets23259.53-7
9. Milwaukee Bucks2126112-8
10. Detroit Pistons212711.54-6
11. New York Knicks212912.53-7
12. Miami Heat1930148-2
13. Philadelphia 76ers1829146-4
14. Orlando Magic193114.53-7
15. Brooklyn Nets93923.51-9
Source: NBA.com

"I see ourselves getting to the Eastern Conference Finals," Wall said on TNT's Inside the NBA after being named an All-Star reserve, per Locked on Wizards' Ben Standig. "That's our goal."

And it's a realistic one.

Kyle Lowry Is the North

How is Kyle Lowry not an All-Star starter?

Ah, right: Life isn't fair...or always accurate.

The Raptors needed overtime to get past the New Orleans Pelicans without DeMar DeRozan, and Lowry was up to the task. He accumulated 33 points and 10 assists while shooting 6-of-14 from three-point range. And he still had enough juice after logging nearly 45 minutes to hit the game-winning dagger:

Lowry is now going streaking—on 30-point efforts, per ESPN Stats & Info:

Toronto's should-be All-Star starter wasn't alone in his detonation. Jonas Valancunias put up 20 points on 9-of-17 shooting, clearly enjoying life outside DeRozan's shadow. Patrick Patterson didn't wow with his numbers (10 points, seven rebounds), but his defense was integral, and he finished with a team-high plus-21.

If any rival general managers are reading this, now is the time to call the Raptors about Terrence Ross, as Bleacher Report's Andy Bailey opined:

Norman Powell is, indeed, a beast. The sophomore poured in 18 points on a tidy 8-of-15 shooting to go along with three assists, two steals, two blocks and one Anthony Davis sad face:

There isn't much to take away from an almost-loss against a Pelicans outfit that had its best player, Davis, go 4-of-18 from the field. But the Raptors needed this one: Boston has sole ownership of second place in the East, and Washington is making everyone uncomfortable. Atlanta isn't going anywhere, either.

After losing six of their last seven games entering Tuesday night, the Raptors needed this almost as much as they need Wednesday night's tilt versus the Celtics.

Kawhi = Hyperbole

The poor Oklahoma City Thunder didn't stand a chance.

OK, technically, they did. They recovered from a disastrous first quarter and trimmed the San Antonio Spurs' lead to four entering the final frame.

But then Kawhi Leonard decided play time was over.

Twelve of his 36 points came in the fourth, all of them at the expense of Oklahoma City's hopes and dreams. He didn't shoot well from beyond the arc (1-of-4) on the night, but he found salvation at the foul line (9-of-11) and as a playmaker (four assists). Bleacher Report's Alec Nathan summarized Leonard's performance succinctly:

He ain't kidding. This was Leonard's 15th 30-point explosion of the season—and yes, that's a big deal, per Spurs public relations staffer Jordan Howenstine:

Because staking his claim as one of the two best players in Spurs franchise history wasn't enough, Leonard used Steven Adams and Victor Oladipo as pawns in his physics-defying game:

Russell Westbrook (27 points, 14 assists) finished four rebounds shy of another triple-double, but that wasn't the story. The Thunder can't function like a regular NBA team when he's off the floor. We knew this.

The real takeaway is a repeat of a greatest-hits takeaway: Hot freaking damn, the Spurs are good.

San Antonio will run into issues when defending slippery point guards who, unlike Westbrook, have a reliable three-point stroke. But we're sub-writing the Warriors here, and that's not fair to the Spurs.

They have the Association's second-best record and net rating. Let's treat them with the respect—and fear—they deserve.

Relegate. The. Kings.

HOUSTON, TX - JANUARY 31:  DeMarcus Cousins #15 of the Sacramento Kings and Ryan Anderson #3 of the Houston Rockets collide at Toyota Center on January 31, 2017 in Houston, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading a
Bob Levey/Getty Images

During a game in which James Harden scored a season-low 10 points on nine shots, the Sacramento Kings lost by 22 points. Twenty-two points.

Relegation to the local rec leauge is the only appropriate punishment for this roundball injustice. 

Sacramento was dunzo after an 11-point second quarter left it buried in a 54-35 halftime hole. Now that they're three games off the Western Conference's get-swept-in-the-first-round-by-the-Warriors seed, the Kings should start shopping everyone whose name doesn't rhyme with LaMarcus Dozens. (Malachi Richardson can stay, too.)

Ryan Anderson was pure fire for Houston. He, along with every other Rockets big, left the Kings dazed and confused in transition. His 25 points and 11 rebounds were almost enough to make you forget Harden was playing with both hands bound behind his back.

Also, shoutout to Eric Gordon for casting the confundus charm (feel free to at me, Harry Potter fans) on Anthony Tolliver:

The Rockets, not unlike the Raptors, needed this success Tuesday night. They've fallen off a cliff over their last 12 outings, even when you include this takedown. 

Houston is 5-7 since Jan. 1, with an offense that ranks an unimpressive 14th in points scored per 100 possessions. While they're in no danger of forfeiting a top-three seed, Mike D'Antoni's boys need to regain the offensive mojo that initially made them one of this season's best feel-good stories.

Tuesday's Final Scores

  • Washington Wizards 117, New York Knicks 101
  • Toronto Raptors 108, New Orleans Pelicans 106
  • Houston Rockets 105, Sacramento Kings 83
  • San Antonio Spurs 108, Oklahoma City Thunder 94
  • Portland Trail Blazers 115, Charlotte Hornets 98
  • Los Angeles Lakers 120, Denver Nuggets 116

Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @danfavale.

Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com or NBA.com and accurate leading into games on Wednesday.

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