During their best season in years, the Washington Wizards often have displayed teamwork, toughness and smarts. They’ve demonstrated the ability to learn from their mistakes. And for the Wizards, the next step is clear: they must finish well.
With only 29 games remaining, the Wizards are approaching the stretch run, and they plan to come through it in a good position. Ownership expects the team to return to the postseason, and Wizards coaches and players believe that’s where they’re headed. But there’s plenty of hard work ahead.
That was evident Tuesday night as the Wizards got off to a bad start in their return from the all-star break with a 103-93 loss to the Toronto Raptors. Against the Atlantic Division leaders, the Wizards trailed by 20 points while playing as if no one told them the break had ended.
The hot-shooting Raptors — they made 56.8 percent of their attempts from the field and 43.8 percent from three-point range — buried the Wizards in front of a small, disappointed crowd at Verizon Center. Although the Wizards looked lousy against the Raptors and have lost three straight, they’re still good enough to get where they want to go.
Despite the roster’s flaws (Washington definitely could use a better backup point guard), the Wizards have the necessary parts to finish among the Eastern Conference’s top eight teams without making a trade before Thursday’s deadline. The Wizards have to believe that.
It’s Coach Randy Wittman’s job to make sure they do.
When Wittman looks at the Wizards, he sees one of the NBA’s best young back-court tandems in John Wall and Bradley Beal. Few teams, Wittman will tell you, have two big men who are as productive, efficient and sharp as Nene and Marcin Gortat. Wittman wishes he had several wing forwards who shoot three-pointers and play defense as well as Trevor Ariza.
The Wizards don’t suffer from lack of talent. Their troubles are the result of lack of experience.
Although Nene appeared in the playoffs seven times with the Denver Nuggets and Ariza played a key role on the Los Angeles Lakers’ 2008-09 NBA championship team, the Wizards are just figuring out what it takes to win consistently. And Wall and Beal — the Wizards’ most talented players — are tasting team success for the first time in the NBA.
When the guys at the top of your roster are learning how to carry an emerging team, count on encountering some bumpys road at times. Beal, who finished second in the all-star weekend’s three-point shooting contest, had a difficult night against Toronto, scoring only nine points while missing 8 of 10 field goal attempts. Wall, the all-star slam dunk champion, scored a team-high 22 points but missed all seven of his field goal attempts in the second half.
Wittman gets it. He knows Wall and Beal, for the most part, will have to guide the Wizards to where they hope to land. They’re kids — albeit highly skilled ones.
That’s why Wittman talks so much about striving to maintain consistency. Actually, he hammers the point.
“The keys don’t change for us, and that’s what we’ve got to realize,” he said. “We’ve just got to be as consistent as we possibly can in our play.”
Too often on Tuesday, the Wizards were a step slow on defense. Obviously, that’s not the type of consistency Wittman wants.
The Wizards made a late run, but they’re in a three-game slide starting a stretch in which they need “a high caliber of play for  games,” said Wittman, who was ejected late in the fourth quarter but may have wanted to leave much earlier with as poorly as the Wizards played.
“We’ve got . . .  on the road, 15 at home and it boils down to eight weeks. We’ve got to be ready to go each and every game. It’s going to be important coming down the stretch in . . . what we end up doing and where we end up.”
In three meetings with the Raptors this season, the Wizards have wound up on the wrong end of the score. Washington wasn’t competitive in the past two matchups. “They make shots, they play hard, they are competing,” Gortat said, assessing the Raptors’ performance. “I guess they have more will than we have to win.”
After its latest letdown against Toronto, Washington is tied with Brooklyn for the sixth spot in the East. It’s way too early for the Wizards to start scoreboard watching, though their recent rough patch should stir some concern in the organization, if for no other reason than when the slide is occurring.
When teams with expectations struggle days before the trading deadline, frustrated fans usually vent on sports-talk radio and Internet message boards. They encourage management to shake up things by making big trades.
Reserve point guard Eric Maynor has been such a disappointment, the Wizards have used Garrett Temple as Wall’s primary backup, which is a much bigger role than Temple was expected to have. The Wizards could upgrade at the position, but they’re only about $1 million under the luxury tax threshold.
Generally, teams are willing to pay the tax to add potential difference-makers for an entire season. Paying the tax to rent a backup point guard for 20-plus games wouldn’t make sense. The Wizards don’t expect outside help — and that’s fine with them.
“We still have 29 games left. That’s a lot,” Beal said. “This season is still up for grabs.”
But will the Wizards take what they want?
For more by Jason Reid, visit washingtonpost.com/reid.