John Wall never envisioned the season unfolding like this. The Washington Wizards were supposed to take the next step in the postseason and compete for Eastern Conference supremacy, not battle for a playoff spot as spring blooms. This would’ve been acceptable two years ago. Not now.
“I think about it every day, to be honest with you,” Wall said as he strolled to the loading dock at Philips Arena early Monday afternoon following the Wizards’ shootaround. “I’m thinking, ‘There’s no way … we should be in this situation. We should already have a playoff spot. We should be done with that.’ Now we’re fighting for dear life.”
A few hours later, Wall commanded the Wizards to an impressive and crucial 117-102 victory over the Atlanta Hawks, finishing the game with 27 points and 14 assists to help lug Washington back to .500 at 35-35. After four separate four-game winning streaks this season, the Wizards have finally won five straight. It doubles as the longest current win streak in the NBA.
But when the Wizards filed into the visitors’ locker room, they found out they hadn’t made a dent in the 1.5-game margin between them and a playoff spot because the Chicago Bulls and Detroit Pistons — the teams ahead of them in the Eastern Conference standings — had also triumphed. The Bulls came back to topple the Sacramento Kings, 109-102, while the Detroit Pistons outlasted the Milwaukee Bucks, 92-91, after Bucks guard Jerryd Bayless bricked two free throws with 9.6 seconds left to set up Andre Drummond’s game-winning tip-in with 2.1 seconds remaining.
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“We’re trying to chase them,” the former University of Kentucky star said. “We got to do our job just winning games and hope other teams lose to give ourselves an opportunity. But we can’t focus on anybody else if we can’t take care of our games.”
That is the reality the Wizards occupy with 12 games left, including another meeting with the Hawks on Wednesday in Washington. Winning isn’t enough. They need others to lose. But there is hope after they excavated a hole that appeared too deep to emerge from as late as a week ago, when the Wizards were concluding a five-game losing streak. The past 14 games — four consecutive wins preceded the losing streak and the current winning streak — embody this year’s Wizards. They’ve been consistently inconsistent.
We know what our goal was at the beginning of the year, to be a top-four seed, a top-three seed. We failed that part.
The win streak has improved the Wizards’ odds of making the postseason for the third consecutive spring. The statistical blog FiveThirtyEight pegs Washington finishing the season 42-40 with a 43 percent chance of making the playoffs — better odds than the Pistons (39 percent) and Bulls (33). Other prognostications are gloomier: ESPN’s BPI projects Washington will finish 41-41 and puts its chances at 20.9 percent, while Basketball-Reference.com also has the Wizards finishing 41-41 but with just a 17.7 percent probability of advancing to the postseason.
“I don’t like it,” Wall said of the Wizards’ standing. “Don’t matter if I’m averaging 20, 10, and 5, and was an All-Star. It don’t mean nothing to me.”
In his sixth campaign, the 25-year-old Wall has assumed the bulk of the burden as key pieces around him have filtered in and out of the lineup with injuries. Monday’s double-double was his 43rd of the season, which ranks fourth in the NBA behind Drummond, Russell Westbrook and DeMarcus Cousins. The point guard had 40 last season. He’s averaging career highs of 20.2 points, 10.0 assists (matching last season), 4.9 rebounds and 1.9 steals. He’s posted the numbers while not missing any of Washington’s 70 games.
But turnovers have often tormented Wall. He’s averaging the third most in the NBA, and, like the entire Wizards squad, he’s regressed defensively for much of the campaign. Last season, Wall ranked fourth in the NBA among point guards in ESPN’s defensive plus-minus, a metric used to estimate a player’s on-court impact on his team’s defensive performance and measure in points allowed per 100 defensive possessions. This season, the three-time all-star ranks 16th. He’s been prone to surrender dribble penetration, allowing small, quick point guards to regularly torch the Wizards.
But when the Wizards are at their best defensively, as they have been during their current winning streak, Wall is the catalyst, providing the on-ball pressure to create the transition opportunities the Wizards feast on.
The point guard reiterated Monday that a significant reason for the team’s — and his — improvement has been the adjustment the Wizards made in their pick-and-roll coverage after the 0-3 West Coast swing that concluded the losing streak. Before, Wall was instructed to recover to defend the ball-handler after he was screened because the big man was tasked to attend to the roller in what is called a “two-for-two” scheme. Now the three other defenders on the floor are sagging into the paint when necessary to help out.
“Everyone was looking bad, including me. I put blame on myself. I wasn’t good,” Wall said. “I was frustrated about chasing. You’re telling me to guard somebody running behind them. Let’s see somebody guard me two-for-two on pick-and-rolls. I’ll have a [freaking] field day. I knew I wasn’t great defensively early on, but now my defense is a lot better because we’re back to our old principles and it makes it tougher for teams to score against us.”
Defense was the Wizards’ hallmark the previous three seasons, when they ranked in the league’s top 10. They’ve resembled those squads over the past nine days, allowing 92.4 points per game during their surge, with Wall serving as the head and Markieff Morris’s versatility providing a boost. To salvage a season with lofty expectations, they’ll need to continue looking like those teams, with Wall to continuing to shoulder the load.
“It’s still a failure that we didn’t get a higher seed but it’s never a failure if you get in because our ultimate goal is just get in the playoffs,” Wall said. “We know what our goal was at the beginning of the year, to be a top-four seed, a top-three seed. We failed that part. But just to still be able to get in after the stuff we went through, injuries and then having slow starts and not being defend people, I feel like we can give anybody a run for their money in the playoffs.”