Wizards are playing up to the level of their competition, such as the Thunder


Wizards center Marcin Gortat smiles after drawing a foul in the first half of Saturday night’s win over the Thunder. (Alex Brandon/Associated Press)

The only thing truly surprising about the Washington Wizards96-81 victory over Oklahoma City — in which they snapped the Thunder’s 10-game winning streak, held the league’s fourth-highest scoring team to a season low in points and forced Kevin Durant into missing 13 of his 21 shots — is that not enough people saw it coming. Based on the way Washington has played over the past two weeks, the win over the Thunder was easier to call than a meteorologist predicting the next major storm.

The Wizards (23-23) are in another one of those inexplicable stretches of the season in which they’ve been consistently inconsistent and produced outcomes that stand in opposition of what logic would suggest. In their past nine games, the Wizards have gone 5-4 by alternating wins and losses and failing to generate traction either way. They have shut down some of the NBA’s most potent offenses and individual scorers and let some of the league’s lowest scoring teams and least heralded players have incredible performances.

“This is a marathon,” Coach Randy Wittman said when asked how the team has solved other oddities this season. “There’s a lot of things that change throughout the year. You go through your little trends. There is nothing . . . it’s just the stick-to-itiveness of guys. There’s going to be periods coming up where we’re going to struggle at different things. It’s just kind of the schedule you’re playing, who you’re playing against, kind of makes that. As long as we’re staying focused on what we’re not doing good and try to get that bit and when something else goes bad, we’ll look at film and try to get that fixed.”

When Nene recorded a game-winning blocked shot on Jimmy Butler to secure a 96-93 win over the Chicago Bulls — a team they are currently tied with for fifth in the Eastern Conference — on Jan. 17, the Wizards moved back up to .500 for the fourth time this season. They followed up with a loss to Detroit, one of 10 teams yet to win 20 games this season, a win over Philadelphia and a loss to a Celtics team that won only two games in January.

After that, Washington held the Phoenix Suns below 100 points for just the 15th time this season and let a Utah Jazz team that has 14 triple-digit games this season claim a 104-101 victory. During this strange serve-and-volley stretch, the Wizards have forced Western Conference all-star starters Stephen Curry and Durant into shooting a combined 16 for 44 from the field and 2 for 13 from three-point range while surrendering five three-pointers and a career-high 20 points to undrafted Boston rookie Phil Pressey and 24 points to Utah backup big man Enes Kanter.

Former Georgetown star Jeff Green made a career-high eight three-pointers in leading the Celtics to a 113-111 victory over the Wizards on Jan. 22 but has made a total of seven shots from long distance in his past five games. Curry has made 12 three-pointers in his past two games since missing 5 of 7 against the Wizards, including a leaning left-handed desperation shot as time expired.

The wins have allowed the Wizards to get back to .500, but they have continually slipped back in the next game, no matter the quality of the opponent. But John Wall said the team has gotten caught up recently with basing its intensity level on the record of the teams it is facing.

“I think when we play those good teams, we know we can get embarrassed in front of your home crowd, and it’s just as embarrassing on the road,” Wall said. “We lock in and we play team defense and we trust each other, and we are moving the ball offensively. We just got to find a way to do it against the mediocre teams and the teams that’s okay and playing like we are.”

If there is a common link to the up-and-down play, all five of the wins have come when the Wizards held opponents to fewer than 100 points, and all four losses have come when they allowed the teams go above that mark. This season, the Wizards rank ninth in the NBA in defensive efficiency rating (102.0 points per 100 possessions) and are 16-6 when they hold teams below 100 points.

They will have another challenge Monday against all-stars LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers, who lead the NBA at 108 points per game.

“We’ve got to focus in on each game, no matter who it is. But we know they are a great team. They have some real killers on their team,” Wizards guard Bradley Beal said. “As long as we continue to focus on that end of the floor, instead of the offense all the time, we’re a pretty good team.”

The Wizards became the fifth team to hold Golden State below 90 points this season in an 88-85 victory, but they arguably had a more impressive defensive effort against the Thunder. Oklahoma City had topped 100 in each of its previous 10 games, including two games with at least 120, before coming to Washington. The Thunder has also failed to score at least 90 points five times this season and fell 24.4 points below its season average.

“All four quarters? That’s probably the best,” Wall said of the Wizards’ defensive effort against the Thunder. “We got to learn how to play 48 minutes of basketball on both ends, and we’ll be a consistent team. But you keep talking about it and not doing it, it don’t mean nothing.”

Michael Lee is the national basketball writer for The Washington Post.
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