The Washington Wizards Can Still Out-Talent Lottery Teams

Don’t blink. The Washington Wizards really are just a half game out of a playoff spot right now.

Washington took care of business at Atlanta on Wednesday, stomping the lowly Hawks 131-117. It was the type of victory that would’ve been a foregone conclusion when the schedule came out, but – given how the Wizards’ season has gone – feels like a solid win.

The Wiz have now reeled off three straight, with a combined point differential of plus-31. With a game against the 5-19 Cleveland Cavaliers coming up tomorrow, then a tilt with the Victor Oladipo-less Indiana Pacers two days later, things are looking up in the nation’s capital.

It can’t be stressed enough how light the team’s schedule has been. Washington’s consecutive wins have come against a Brooklyn Nets team sans Caris LeVert that’s lost eight straight, the 8-17 New York Knicks, and the 5-20 Atlanta Hawks, now sporting the league’s second-worst record. Not exactly murderer’s row. If ever there was a moment in the season to build some momentum, this would be it.

The Wizards have climbed to “mediocre” after being just plain bad for the first month of the season. They’re no longer losing to every team – just the good ones. They’re now 8-3 against teams with a negative point differential.

Generally speaking, the Wiz overmatch bottom-feeders with sheer talent. They just don’t seem to execute enough, or well enough, to take many wins off the NBA’s more skilled, experienced squads.

They now sit at 11-14, but per Basketball-Reference, their point differential is that of a 9-16 squad. Teams that outperform their point differentials usually lose by wide margins and win by narrow ones – they’re either lucky in the clutch or talented enough to win down-to-the-wire games that force them to give a damn.

There’s reason to believe Washington falls into the latter category. The Wizards’ defense has been atrocious through the first half of most games, but with very few individual weak links, teams have trouble breaking them down when games are tight at the end.

In clutch situations – games divided by five or fewer points with five or fewer minutes to go – they are outscoring foes by 6.8 points per 100 possessions, ninth in the league. Both the offense and defense improve, even though their rebounding rate drops to a vomit-inducing 31.1 percent.

Part of that success is luck; the Wizards are shooting 44.8 percent from three in clutch situations. But they also do things that are sustainable in those tight matchups. They have the league’s third-lowest foul rate on defense and the highest assist rate on offense.

Late in games, this lethargic crew is forced to pick up the intensity. That intensity manifests itself in solid individual defense and an offense that hums thanks to the brilliance of John Wall and Bradley Beal. Most of the teams Washington has conquered don’t have any players the quality of the Wizards’ star duo, let alone two. That tandem is now scoring a combined 61 points per 100 possessions in clutch time.

And while Scott Brooks’ plays may be tired and predictable, they’ve also been carefully choreographed and thoroughly rehearsed. This core has won playoff series. It has too much juice for the scrappy underdogs of the Eastern Conference.

The Wizards may be able to ride their talent straight to a playoff berth. They made enough improvements over the course of November to avoid getting blown out early in most games. And once it gets late, they have a chance because of Wall and Beal.

The East is getting stronger, but it’s very top heavy. From New York to Cleveland to Atlanta, Eastern front offices are hoping for higher lottery odds, not an eight seed. If the Wizards can take care of business against the league’s whipping boys, they can get back on the treadmill of 40-win finishes.

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