Forward Trevor Ariza abruptly changed topics during a recent interview to discuss something mostly overlooked about the Washington Wizards.
The Wizards have made noteworthy strides this season, and much of their improvement is the result of something they lacked for years: experience.
“You really don’t hear a lot about it, but we have guys who have been through so many different situations in this league over a long time,” said Ariza, who succeeded in getting out the word. “When you have guys who overcame stuff and learned how to win, it means a lot. You can kind of [draw on that] when you need to.”
For the Wizards, one of those moments has arrived.
The team ended a disappointing 1-3 West Coast swing with Sunday’s 105-102 loss to the Denver Nuggets. With 12 games remaining in the regular season, the Wizards (36-34) are sixth in the Eastern Conference playoff race and appear to be in good position to clinch their first postseason berth in six seasons. But their mini-slide — they’ve lost five of eight — has provided a reminder that the Wizards still have work to do. And their veteran leaders will be key to that effort.
The Wizards’ best players, guards John Wall and Bradley Beal, have not played in competitively significant games as professionals. By contrast, Ariza, center Marcin Gortat and reserve forward Al Harrington understand what it takes to achieve extended play: They have appeared in a combined 135 playoff games.
Ariza, who is in his 10th season, played a key role for the Los Angeles Lakers during their run to the 2008-09 NBA title. Gortat, a seven-year veteran, also was part of an NBA Finals team. Over a span of 11 seasons, Harrington, still contributing in his 16th season, helped three clubs advance to the playoffs. These savvy players possess the type of know-how needed to help the Wizards get back on track.
It starts by putting the recent trip behind them. The Wizards must regroup for Wednesday’s matchup against the Phoenix Suns at Verizon Center. When you’re in a playoff chase with the clock winding down, there’s no time to look backward. What’s in front of you is all that matters.
The Wizards must be both mentally and physically tough to deliver what owner Ted Leonsis wants: a return to the postseason. They displayed their mettle in overcoming a poor start to the season and have gone a resilient 8-6 since Nene was sidelined by a knee injury a month ago. They’ll have to show even more determination in their closing kick.
“Warriors,” Gortat said recently. “That’s what we all have to be.”
In many ways, Ariza has been the Wizards’ fiercest. No Wizard has done more to pick up the slack since Nene has been out of the lineup. In 12 games in March, Ariza is averaging 17.4 points (up from 14.9 overall) while also shooting 50.7 percent from the field (including 45.5 percent from three-point range) and playing top-notch defense.
“When you know what you’re supposed to do and then you go out and do it, your team appreciates that. Guys kind of feed off of it,” Ariza said. “Just having guys you know you can count on no matter what, and won’t panic when stuff gets hard, is really what you want.”
Gortat is one of them. The affable Polish big man, who worked well with Nene, has continued to provide the Wizards with a strong inside presence while his friend recovers. If young post player Kevin Seraphin wants to know what it takes to succeed in the NBA, all he needs to do is watch Gortat.
After missing most of the season, Harrington, who had knee surgery in December, is providing pointers again, too. He scored 15 points as a reserve Friday, when the Wizards defeated the Lakers in their only victory on the trip.
Harrington’s biggest contribution, however, occurred early in the season. He joined Ariza in sponsoring a clear-the-air team meeting after Nene called out Wall, who was struggling at the time. Since then, Wall has become a star and the Wizards, despite bumps in the road, are having a great season by their recent standards.
When the Wizards acquired Nene in a three-team trade in March 2012, it marked a new phase in their rebuilding plan. Until that point, team President Ernie Grunfeld, following Leonsis’s instructions to build through the draft, constructed one of the most inexperienced rosters in the league. It showed. The mistake-prone Wizards were way too young.
It has been said there’s no substitute for experience. The Wizards finally have a lot of it at just the right time.
For more by Jason Reid, visit washingtonpost.com/reid.