Wizards embracing playoff chances after rollercoaster season

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Chase Hughes
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Wizards embracing playoff chances after rollercoaster season originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

With one month until the finish line, the stars may be aligning for the Wizards to make the play-in tournament.

After going 4-2 on their recent road trip, which began in Tampa and finished in Sacramento, the Wizards now sit only one game back from the Chicago Bulls, who hold the 10th and final seed. Those Bulls have lost 10 of 13 games and will now play without All-Star guard Zach LaVine, who has reportedly entered the league's health and safety protocol.

Closing the gap may not be as easy it looks. Yes, it's just one game and the Bulls are in disarray. But the Wizards are also tied with the Raptors, who have already secured the head-to-head season series against them, giving them the seeding tiebreaker. If the Bulls held their current win percentage for the rest of the season (.407), the Wizards would have to go at least 9-9 to pass them.

Given how their season has gone, there is no guarantee the Wizards can play .500 basketball for that long of a period. But just having the opportunity is something they are embracing, especially after all the injuries they have endured, the significant coronavirus outbreak that besieged them in January and all the disappointing losses they have had to set aside.

"That’s kind of our goal right now," Bradley Beal said. "Obviously, we’re going to need some help from some other teams. We’re just taking it a game at a time and controlling what we can control. This was a really good trip for us."

The Wizards could use some hope after the 2020-21 season they've experienced, which has included the unprecedented circumstances of playing during a pandemic. They were unfortunately the first team that went through a major roster-wide outbreak. Back in January, they had six games across 13 days postponed. And afterwards, effects were seen for weeks as players tried to regain their physical conditioning as they played opponents who were in midseason form.

Head coach Scott Brooks remarked recently how he's still seeing the effects in his players. But he also thinks there's a way to spin all the Wizards have been through into a positive as they look ahead to the playoff (or, play-in) push.

"I love it. It’s definitely been a challenge, not only physically with what the players have been through, but mentally it’s been challenging. You get a rhythm and then something happens. Get another rhythm and then another setback," he said.

"That’s life. You’ve gotta get back up and keep charging forward and moving forward and not complain about what happened. Take advantage of what is about to happen. If you keep that attitude in the right place, it always works out. Very rarely it doesn’t. I like our toughness. With all the adversity we’ve gone through, it’s going to help us down the stretch."

The Wizards' remaining schedule could help their cause. They have the fourth-easiest road ahead, while the Raptors and Bulls have the fifth- and eighth-hardest, respectively.

This year, the Wizards have more wins against teams with records at .500 or above (12-22) than they do against teams with losing records (9-11). But it is also somewhat hard to compare previous results with what they may be capable of moving forward, as they are currently healthier than they have been in months.

Beal, Davis Bertans and Ish Smith all recently returned from injuries. They also acquired Daniel Gafford at the trade deadline and he's made a noticeable difference defensively with his rim protection and rebounding.

"Just having all the guys back [helps]," Bertans said. "It’s not easy to build some consistency if you have some guys playing one game and then the next game no. Then, two or three guys are out at the time. It doesn’t help building consistency when you haven’t played well the whole season. I think that’s the biggest key just having everybody back."

Defense was also cited by players as a big reason for the four wins in five games. During that stretch, the Wizards have had a plus-1.4 net rating, ranking 11th among NBA teams in offensive rating (114.0) and 17th in defensive rating (112.6).

The Wizards are healthy and defending, but it also helps to have Russell Westbrook playing the way he has. He has recorded triple-doubles in 10 of his last 11 games and in six straight. Between him and Beal, the Wizards have two players giving them superstar production on a nightly basis.

It has only been five games, but the Wizards are showing signs they may be able to make something of their rollercoaster of a season. Now, they have to prove they can take advantage of the opportunity presented to them.

"We’re just having fun," Beal said. "I think that’s the biggest thing; we’re just having fun."