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‘It’s survival mode’: After London trip, Wizards enter a crucial stretch

Bradley Beal has carried the Wizards without John Wall, and they'll need more of the same going forward. (Steve Flynn/USA Today Sports) (Steven Flynn/Usa Today Sports)
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Washington Wizards Coach Scott Brooks did not want his team to endure any residual effects from its long trip to London last week, so building in an extra day of rest Saturday was not a difficult decision.

“We’re trying to base a lot of our thinking on the scientific evidence of what we need to do and also the history of other teams doing it,” Brooks said. He told his players to tend to their families and catch up on sleep for an extra day before returning to the team’s practice facility for a light workout Sunday.

The move appeared to work, at least on the surface — Brooks was pleased with how his players moved and worked Sunday as they prepared for Monday’s matinee against the Detroit Pistons, which is about as crucial as a late-January game can get. After Thursday’s 101-100 win over the New York Knicks in London, Washington (19-26) remains seven games under .500 with 13 games remaining until the all-star break in mid-February. The Wizards simply cannot squander opportunities against teams such as the Pistons (20-25), who sit just a game ahead of Washington and occupy ninth place in the Eastern Conference standings.

“There’s some very important games where we go head-to-head against [teams] that are around our standings, like Detroit,” guard Tomas Satoransky said. “It’s going to be really important, with the schedule … before the all-star [break], to see where we can be after that.”

The stretch will require these Wizards to readjust after the trip overseas, which began with a lengthy travel delay because of snow in the Washington area. But even as Brooks and his staff anticipated building in rest when the team returned Friday, perhaps because of stories of fatigue other teams had endured during overseas trips in past years, they were ready to move on from the topic Sunday. As Satoransky came off the floor and met with reporters, he was immediately asked how he was feeling.

“Normal. … I was out [there] for three days, man. It’s not like we [expletive] went to the moon and back. Normal, man,” Satoransky said.

Washington is starting to find normalcy since point guard John Wall had season-ending surgery on his heel earlier in the month. The Wizards have won six of their past 10 games, a product of an identity shift with Wall out. Not only has Bradley Beal blossomed and played like an all-star with the team on his back, but Washington has learned to play without Wall on both ends of the floor, relying on past lessons accrued from time without him. Brooks traced some of those Sunday; a year ago, Beal struggled with the perpetual double-team traps thrown his way with Wall out. This year, he’s thrived in those situations, Brooks said, including in the final seconds Thursday when he opted not to take on two defenders but instead gave the ball up to young center Thomas Bryant for the game-winning attempt against the Knicks (his shot was goaltended for the win).

“It’s something we did a little bit last year, when [Wall] missed half the season. Last year, we didn’t know what to expect. Now we knew what to expect because we have been through it before. … We’re playing good. We’re playing good on both ends of the floor,” Brooks said. “It’s basically survival mode. We want to keep fighting to put ourselves in a position to win a playoff spot. To do that, we’ve had to play a little bit different, and our guys have stepped up.”

Without Wall’s speed, Washington has played a little differently, Brooks said, by running more half-court sets around Beal and using more small-ball lineups that have forced teams to rethink how they guard the Wizards. Washington is also reshaping its defensive identity on the heels of the midseason acquisition of Trevor Ariza and has seen an uptick in defensive efficiency over the past 10 games. And Brooks has learned to lean on the unknown each night with a cast of unproven players; young contributors such as Bryant and Satoransky have become key staples in a lineup leveled by injury.

“We’ve had a stretch of 10 games now — take away the Philadelphia game [a 132-115 loss Jan. 8] — where we’ve had a chance to win all of them,” Brooks said.

All of those unforeseen developments are about to be tested in the most crucial stretch of the season, a run that will determine whether the Wizards position themselves for the playoffs in the spring. There are heavyweights dotting the schedule; the Golden State Warriors visit Thursday, and the next month will pit the Wizards against Eastern Conference powers Toronto, Milwaukee and Indiana. Besides those opportunities, any postseason run will hinge on the Wizards avoiding a post-London slump — and seizing chances against teams with similar bodies of work.

“We need to take one game at a time,” Satoransky said, “but we’re very aware of the importance of this stretch of the games.”

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