The Washington Wizards were 65 seconds away from losing in regulation to the Orlando Magic on Friday before John Wall brought them back with a one-man, 8-2 run to force overtime. They were again on the verge of losing to the Magic in overtime before Bradley Beal blocked out the pain in his back to track down Jameer Nelson for a game-saving blocked shot that set up Trevor Ariza’s go-ahead three-pointer.
The next night, they were down 10 points in the fourth quarter against the Brooklyn Nets before Al Harrington provided a momentum-shifting dunk, Drew Gooden reminded the rest of the NBA that he’s capable of contributing and Wall added the finishing touches.
Two gutsy escapes on consecutive nights did more than just move the Wizards into sole possession of fifth place in the Eastern Conference with 16 games remaining. The victories also emboldened the Wizards about their ability to withstand adversity — something they have already been doing for the past three weeks without Nene — and gave them more confidence about what they can accomplish on a four-game West Coast road trip that starts Tuesday in Sacramento.
“I think this defines our season, basically, where we want to be,” Wall said. “It’s pretty big to go 4 for 4, or at least 3 for 4, on this road trip, to keep yourself on a winning side, not take no slumps. These last 16 games are pretty big for us to try to get home-court advantage or stay in that six [seed] range or above, because nobody wants to be seven or eight.”
Washington (35-31) has won six of seven away from Verizon Center since the all-star break, with the only loss coming against the two-time defending champion Miami Heat. The Portland Trail Blazers are the Wizards’ only opponent with a winning record on the season’s last extended road swing, which ends with games against the lottery-bound Los Angeles Lakers and Denver Nuggets.
With the Wizards only two games behind Toronto for third place and 21 / 2 games ahead of seventh-place Charlotte, they don’t have much margin for error.
“We got to stay hungry, stay aggressive and try to go out here and get all of these, be greedy,” Ariza said. “Again, we’re not playing to lose, we’re playing to win as many games as we can. That’s what we’re doing.”
Though the Wizards’ 18 road wins are third-most in the East behind Indiana and Miami, they don’t want to get ahead of themselves.
“It’s definitely going to be a rough trip. Nothing is easy,” Beal said. “These are great teams that we’re playing, but at the same time, these are all winnable games. We’re going to be battle-tested and hopefully we can take on every challenge and defeat it.”
Beal gave his teammates and his family a scare in Orlando, where he followed his impressive blocked shot by spraining his right ankle on the next defensive possession. Moved to tears for fear his ankle was broken, Beal was carried off the court by teammates but felt good enough the next day to test it against the Nets and scored 15 points.
“He’s a tough kid,” Ariza said. “There was no question that he wasn’t going to play. That’s big for him, that’s big for our team, just shows that we all put it on the line for this team.”
The Wizards have gone 7-3 since Nene suffered a sprained ligament in his left knee. His latest injury coincided with the acquisitions of veterans Andre Miller and Gooden and the return of Harrington from knee surgery. Their presence has given Washington more talent and experience and more players who have an understanding of what it takes to win meaningful games late in the season.
“Guys that have been to the Finals, guys that have played in a lot of playoff games, guys that have won championships I think are a plus on any team for any young guys,” said Gooden, who is expected to be signed for the rest of the season when his second 10-day contract expires on Tuesday. “Trevor has a ring, and I’ve been to a Finals appearance, but guys with a body of work like Andre Miller and Al Harrington — I’ve played against those guys on opposing teams for years — to be on a team with them and playing in the second unit with them, that’s just a blessing.”
In the first two months of the season, when the Wizards were struggling to find an identity and establish a consistent rotation with players battling through injuries and playing time restrictions, Coach Randy Wittman expressed concern about the team being too distracted and loose before games. That doesn’t appear to be the case anymore. as the Wizards have gone 10-4 since the all-star break.
“I think our focus is a lot better in the locker room and then on the court, we’ve really bought into winning games and just trying to win each one from here on out,” Beal said. “A lot of these guys are approaching this like it’s our last game.”
For players whose best days are behind them, like Harrington and Miller, they have little choice but to play with more urgency and that approach has been contagious. “We’re a different team than we was earlier in the year,” Harrington said. “The biggest thing is just to get that momentum rolling into April, so that when you make it in the playoffs, we get out of the first round.”