For the first time in six years, the Wizards enter the regular-season finale pondering first-round playoff possibilities instead of lottery implications. They are wondering if they’ll head to Toronto, Chicago or Miami instead preparing to hit vacation spots.
Washington (43-38) accomplished its season-long goal of reaching the playoffs and actually have a chance to tie the mark for second-most wins in the past 35 years and claim fifth seed in the Eastern Conference, which would be their highest position since 2006.
The Wizards can look back to several moments that propelled them to their most successful season since 2008, but 10 stand out more than the others. Here they are, in no particular order:
1. Triple overtime win in Toronto
In just their second game after losing Nene with a sprained medial collateral ligament in his left knee, the Wizards showed the grit required to win in his absence during a thrilling and physically taxing, 134-129 triple-overtime victory over the Toronto Raptors at Air Canada Centre.
The Wizards played 63 minutes of intense basketball that included 19 ties, 15 lead changes, a combined 208 field goal attempts and five players playing 50 minutes. Marcin Gortat and John Wall both had 31 points as Washington claimed its lone win against Toronto this season.
2. Two home wins against the Miami Heat
The two-time defending champion Miami Heat lost five games by at least 17 points this season. Washington was responsible for two of them. Miami showed up at Verizon Center on Jan. 15, a day after visiting President Obama at the White House, and were rudely welcomed by the Wizards. Nene blocked LeBron James’s layup attempt early and dunked on him late as the Wizards stunned Miami, 114-97. The Wizards uncorked their best first quarter of the season, outscoring the Heat, 43-15, and built a 34-point lead in a dominant performance that snapped a four-game losing streak to Miami.
The Heat returned to Washington three months later and the Wizards took advantage of the absences of James and Chris Bosh to hand out a more resounding beatdown, 114-93. They outscored Miami, 43-22, in the second quarter and built a 36-point lead in the second half.
3. Broadway Bradley Beal
There is no denying that Bradley Beal gets up for games in New York. Beal returned from a nine-game absence because of a stress injury in his right leg on Dec. 16 to score 14 of his 21 points in the fourth quarter, including the game-winning driving layup with about six seconds remaining, to lead the Wizards to a 102-101 victory over the Knicks.
When the Wizards returned to Madison Square Garden four months later, Beal spoke about how he wanted a similar performance in a place where he loves to play – and he backed up his words by being the hero once again. With the Wizards trailing by one point, Beal knocked down a pull-up jumper with 22 seconds left to lead his team to a 90-89 win. Beal finished with 28 points.
4. Minnesota win after 2-7 start
The Wizards stumbled to a 2-7 start and were teetering toward a disaster when they hosted the Minnesota Timberwolves at Verizon Center on Nov. 19. Before the game, the Wizards held a players-only meeting in which they defined roles and aired out their differences. Washington came back from a 16-point first-half deficit and defeated the Timberwolves, 104-100. The win snapped a season-high four-game losing streak and put the team back on track toward a playoff run.
5. Three straight 30-point games for John Wall
John Wall was so flustered by an early-season shooting slump that he showed up at Air Canada Centre a few hours early to shoot with assistant Sam Cassell. Wall experienced an immediate payoff that evening, when he shot 15 for 21 and scored a season-high 37 points in a 96-88 loss to the Raptors. The next night, Wall torched the New York Knicks for 31 points in 98-89 victory. It was the first time that Wall had ever recorded back-to-back 30-point games and he was honored two days later with his second career Eastern Conference player of the week award.
But the high scoring games didn’t stop there. The Wizards discovered that Beal would be sidelined with a leg injury and Wall scored 31 points in a 116-111 victory over the Lakers. Wall also provided the highlight of the game, and perhaps the season, with a 360-degree dunk.
6. Trevor Ariza hits 10 three-pointers in Houston
The Wizards lost their final game before the all-star break in controversial fashion, as Trevor Ariza picked up his sixth foul on a dead ball in the final seconds, giving James Harden a chance to lead the Houston Rockets to a 113-112 win. The next morning, Ariza was at the Houston airport catching a flight to Los Angeles with carrying the game ball on his hip.
Why would he want to take a reminder of one of the most troubling losses of the season? Because Ariza set a franchise record and a new career-high with 10 three-pointers in the game, helping the Wizards rally from a 19-point third-quarter deficit to take a late lead. Ariza scored 32 points and made seven-three-pointers in the third period alone, matching his previous career high for a game. Two weeks later, Ariza would set a new career-high with 40 points in a win in Philadelphia.
7. Nene goes for 30, makes game-winning dunk
Before this season, Nene had never scored more than 28 points in a game. In his 12th season, Nene reached a new career-high mark of 30 points twice. He first reached that total against the Los Angeles Lakers on Nov. 26, but the Wizards needed every one of his points on Feb. 22 to upend the New Orleans Pelicans, 94-93. With the Wizards leading by a point, Nene fouled Pelicans big man Anthony Davis and sent him to the foul line for two free throws. But Wall helped Nene find redemption when he spotted the Brazilian big man cutting to the basket for a dunk that secured the win.
8. Three-game road swing in December
The Wizards have 21 road victories, which is the most for the franchise since the 1981-82 season, so it’s probably easy to forget that Washington lost eight of its first 11 games away from Verizon Center. When the Wizards arrived in New York on Dec. 16, they knew that a three-game swing against the Knicks, Brooklyn Nets and Boston Celtics could make or possibly break the season. A three-game sweep – which included Beal’s heroics at Madison Square Garden, the return of Nene after a four-game absence at Barclays Center two nights later, and a Trevor Ariza-led rally from an 18-point deficit to defeat the Celtics – went a long way toward developing the mindset required to have the second-highest road win total in the Eastern Conference.
9. All-star weekend
In addition to a prolonged playoff drought, the Wizards also went without an all-star representative for the past five seasons. But with the NBA’s annual talent showcase returning to New Orleans for the first time since 2008, John Wall made sure that the Wizards were once again represented. Wall scored 12 points with five rebounds, four assists and two steals in his all-star debut as the Eastern Conference won a shootout, 163-155.
He got the best news afterward, when he discovered that his mother, Frances Pulley, had been released from the hospital after being unable to revel in the weekend. Using his mother’s ailment for inspiration, Wall became the franchise’s first slam dunk champion when he grabbed the ball from Wizards’ mascot G-Man and converted a double-pump reverse.
Bradley Beal also gave the organization something to get excited about when he finished second in the three-point shootout and got a celebratory backslap from fellow St. Louis native, Nelly. The night before, Beal scored 21 points to help Team Hill defeat Team Webber in the Rising Star Challenge.
10. Clinching playoffs vs. Boston
After blowing a 16-point second-half lead in Charlotte and failing to take advantage of their first opportunity to clinch a playoff berth, Al Harrington gathered his teammates to remind them that they only needed one win to get in. The gesture went a long way toward getting the Wizards to relax, focus and record their most lopsided victory of the season against the Boston Celtics. The Wizards routed Boston, 118-92, on April 2 to meet owner Ted Leonsis’s playoffs-or-else edict. They never trailed, had six different players score in double figures, shot 62.5 percent from the floor – their best shooting performance since 2001 – and built a 33-point lead in the second half to punch their ticket into the postseason.