The Washington Wizards could be the East’s most dangerous play-in team

Wherever he goes, the Wizards will and should follow.
Wherever he goes, the Wizards will and should follow.
Image: Getty Images

Before Monday’s 146-143 overtime loss to the San Antonio Spurs, the Washington Wizards had won eight straight games. They were 19-33 before that winning streak and had little-to-no business being involved in the discussion we’re about to have.

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The Wizards are now not only 10th in the Eastern Conference and ahead of the Zach LaVine-less 11th place Chicago Bulls by one game, but they’re also — at this moment — playing their best basketball in at least three seasons. The Wizards have not only won 8-of-9, but their recent run of quality ball could stretch further on up the road as they’ve compiled a 10-2 record since April 7, including victories over the Utah Jazz in Salt Lake City, as well as a pair of wins against the Golden State Warriors.

Apparently we’ve decided that Russell Westbrook’s triple-doubles are meaningful again, along with the fact that he’s averaging a league-best 11 assists per game. Accompanying that are tallies of 21.8 points and 11.0 rebounds per contest, and over the last 12 games, Westbrook’s points-rebounds-assists average out at 21.7 points, 13.1 rebounds, and 12.6 assists while shooting over 45 percent from the floor, but only just 32 and shooting 69 percent from three and at the free-throw line. For the season, his slash is 44/31/63.

Bradley Beal, who had 45 points on Monday, has scored 29 or more points in 10 straight games, and currently leads the NBA with 31.4 points per outing while shooting 49/35/90 splits. Beal’s also contributing in other ways, putting forth 4.8 rebounds and 4.6 assists per game on the season.

But as reliable as Westbrook and Beal generally are throughout the course of a season, and as much as they have been over the last three weeks, the Wizards wouldn’t have been in their current position without meaningful role player production, which has seen an uptick.

Dāvis Bertāns, after his five-year $80 million extension looked like a flop earlier in the season, is now averaging 14.2 points per game on 47/48/100 shooting splits in the month of April despite coming off the bench in nine of 11 games. Third-leading scorer Rui Hachimura has upped his game to 15.3 points and 6.3 rebounds a night on 49/35/75 splits over his last 19. The Wizards’ new acquisition from the Chicago Bulls, Daniel Gafford, has dropped 10.8 points, 6 rebounds, and 2+ blocks per contest in 18 minutes per game since landing in D.C. Alex Len is posting 7.7 points and 4.5 rebounds through 15 minutes per game on 69 percent shooting from the field, including a 17 and 10 last time out. And even Raul Neto, who netted 24 points in 28 minutes at Phoenix, has been good for 10 points and a steal per game on 54/48/100 shooting splits over his last 10, including six starts.

The Wizards are still next to last in defense, allowing 118.2 points per game. But they’re now first in offensie pace and sixth in scoring at 114.9 points per contest. In their 10-2 stretch, they’ve netted 121.9 points per game with a +71 point differential even with a 28-point loss to the Suns on April 10.

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If the playoffs were today, the Wizards wouldn’t actually play the seven-seeded Miami Heat either, though some people seem to think the play-in will just be No. 7 vs. No. 10 and No. 8 vs. No. 9, which our March Madness-bracket-addled brains have become accustomed to. In reality, the play-in begins with a Seven-Eight game and a Nine-Ten game, per the NBA themselves. It would actually pair the Wizards with, for now, the Indiana Pacers first, with a chance of matching up with, likely, the Brooklyn Nets or Philadelphia 76ers afterward.

The Wizards are as bad defensively as the Nets, probably even worse, but here’s to hoping for some Kevin Durant versus Westbrook theatre in round one. The Wizards would likely have a short playoff visit following a possible play-in win, but they have the star power (and apparently the depth) to annoy any team in the Eastern Conference for at least six playoff games starting next month.