After missing out on the postseason for the last five years, the Washington Wizards know what it is to be in the position of the Milwaukee Bucks, their opponent Saturday at Verizon Center — a team with nothing left to play for but pride and the hope of unhinging the playoff positioning of its opponent.
After regaining their grasp of the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference playoff picture, however, the Wizards showed they had no intention of giving it back, putting forth a strong defensive effort for the second straight night in a 104-91 victory at Verizon Center.
Bradley Beal tallied 26 points to lead six double-digit scorers for the Wizards, who built on Friday’s strong defensive outing against Orlando while rediscovering their shooting touch with eight three-pointers.
Washington’s victory, coupled with Charlotte’s win against Philadelphia, not only kept the Wizards one game ahead of the Bobcats for the sixth seed but it also pulled them within 11 / 2 games of the Brooklyn Nets, who currently hold the fifth spot and have lost two in a row.
“The guys’ focus is getting a lot better,” said Al Harrington, who had 12 points off the bench. “We are starting to pay a lot more attention to detail. In order to win in the playoffs, that’s what we have to do. Guys have to grow up fast.”
Less than 24 hours removed from Friday’s comeback win at Orlando and facing the league’s worst team, the Wizards (42-38) made some adjustments to be ready for the playoffs. Nene took the game off to rest his knee and avoid the potential wear from back-to-back games. Trevor Ariza appeared to overcome his week-long bout with the flu, making his first three-pointer in four games en route to nine first-quarter points. And Trevor Booker continued to heed his teammates’ advice by remaining aggressive on offense.
Following two Booker buckets and a stepback jumper by Ariza, the Wizards held a comfortable 25-16 lead with that duo combining for 17 of those points. But a 10-2 Milwaukee run trimmed the Wizards’ lead to just one point.
“They didn’t have much to play for, but they’re all playing to get noticed,” said Booker, who finished with 11 points. “So you know they’re going to come out and play hard and try to do their thing. With teams like that, if you hit them early, they usually go down.”
The Wizards were able to keep Milwaukee at bay in the second quarter, thanks to the play of Beal. After shooting just 8-for-25 in his past two games, the guard rediscovered his touch to score nine straight points and help Washington build a 55-52 halftime lead.
“I was shooting the ball with confidence and taking advantage of what the defense was giving me and how they were playing me,” Beal said. “That gives us a lot of confidence, especially at home.”
Beal’s perimeter success spilled into the third quarter, where he scored Washington’s first six points. But Khris Middleton (20 points) answered back on the other end for Milwaukee (15-65), which capitalized on the struggles of Beal’s teammates to take a 61-59 lead.
Up to that point, John Wall had scored just six points and appeared content with sparking his team by way of assists. With his team down, Wall’s approach didn’t change, but as he set up his teammates in better position to score, the Wizards soon found their offensive rhythm.
After finding Beal for a three-pointer, Wall either scored or assisted on seven of Washington’s next eight baskets during a 18-3 run that put the Wizards ahead for good at 85-72 late in the third quarter. Wall finished with 15 points and eight assists.
Defensively, the Wizards forced Milwaukee into 14 second-half turnovers, which opened up transition opportunities and helped build another 10-0 run to start the fourth period.