ATLANTA — The last time the Washington Wizards played in Atlanta, Coach Scott Brooks was concerned.
The morning of the late-January game, all-star point guard John Wall wore an ice bag over his left knee and slippers on his feet during the team’s shoot-around, a clear indication that he would not play later that night against the Hawks. The depth of Wall’s knee soreness was unknown at that time — he would require surgery and miss the next eight weeks — but that night, Brooks realized he would have to turn to Tomas Satoransky as the Wizards' new starting point guard, a move that made him nervous.
“One of our best players was going to miss a big stretch of the season and we were not a lock to make the playoffs,” Brooks recalled Wednesday. “You have one of your best players out and John does so [much] for a lot of guys on the team — I was nervous.
“[Satoransky] was excited and we both were a little nervous not knowing what to expect."
Brooks, however, wasn’t worried about one thing. Satoransky could be counted on to give great effort, a trait that has continued into this season and factored into Brooks’s decision to reinsert him into the starting lineup, now in the small forward role for the third straight game. His return as a starter has coincided with the Wizards' winning streak, which was extended to three games Wednesday with a 131-117 victory over the Hawks at State Farm Arena.
With Wall away from the team for personal reasons, the Wizards started three ballhandling guards in Bradley Beal, Austin Rivers and Satoransky, who scored 14 points and added seven assists. Beal poured in a season-high 36 points on 12-of-22 shooting, and added a team-high nine assists.
Rivers added seven assists in his first start of the season, and Washington had six players in double figures and improved to 11-14.
As Satoransky and Brooks reflected on that Jan. 27 match up in Atlanta — which began Satoransky’s 30-game stretch as the starting point guard in place of Wall — much has changed for both the third-year player and his coach. Satoransky is no longer overcome by the excitement of stepping into the starting lineup.
“It doesn’t surprise me anymore to be in that spot,” Satoransky said. “I’m more ready to play as a wing for a lot of minutes.”
Said Beal: “Sato embraces his role . . . He’s been working hard and he’s earned every minute he’s given. He’s earning the right to start.”
The recent lineup moves have revealed an inner shift within Brooks. For myriad reasons, he might have been “nervous” about going with an unproven player in January, but now Brooks has no issues with mixing up his rotations.
“I just think we needed a change,” Brooks said.
Previously, Brooks had staunchly supported the continuity for his starting lineup. Over the first two years of Brooks’s time in Washington, only injuries had disrupted his normal starting five. Even as the Wizards gave inconsistent effort and played down to seemingly weaker opponents, nothing changed. After one uninspiring loss, Brooks tagged his team with the “selfish” label and threatened to “find five guys” capable of defending and moving the basketball. And yet, the same starters trotted out on the floor the next game. Early in the Wizards' first-round playoff series against the Toronto Raptors, Brooks strongly hinted at promoting Mike Scott to starting center in place of an underperforming Marcin Gortat. It never happened.
This year, instead of telegraphing his frustrations or threatening changes, Brooks has just acted.
“Our record last year was respectable. This year, it’s not,” Brooks said of his club. “You are what your record says you are. You could either stay that way and not make any changes and hope that it just happens through osmosis or you can make it happen.”
On Nov. 20, Brooks made the first move by starting Kelly Oubre Jr. and sending Markieff Morris to the second unit. The team played smaller and faster for longer stretches and the formula led to a comeback win that night over the Los Angeles Clippers. After six games, however, consistent energy and defensive issues still plagued the team. Brooks decided another change was necessary and promoted Satoransky in place of Oubre. The Wizards have won six of the nine games since the lineup tweaks.
“It was the fit. We needed a different fit,” Brooks said. “Our starting lineup needed a different look and we changed it with Markieff a while back and it helped. It helped our team and it helped Keef also get into a nice rhythm.
“When we put Tomas in, our starting lineup needed a different fit,” Brooks continued. “He doesn’t need to score. He doesn’t look to score every time he gets it and it just gave us a better balance.”