Always energetic but not always goofy with reporters, Wagner brought out his jovial side when he pretended not to hear one question about the apparently pointed halftime conversation that spurred Washington to a comeback win over the Los Angeles Clippers on Thursday. He ended his virtual news conference joking about the TV shows he’s looking forward to catching up on over the team’s five-day break and inadvertently revealing what he recently binged: the popular mid-aughts teen drama, “The O.C.”
“You told everybody!” Wagner chided the offending reporter. “Honestly, I’ve been slipping on my TV shows. If anyone has recommendations, please tweet them at me.”
Wagner and the Wizards have earned a bit of lighthearted fun at the season’s midpoint. Washington has rebounded from its lackluster start and tied New York and Miami for the second-best record in the East over the past 10 games. It heads into the all-star break with a 14-20 record, just 1½ games out of contention for the play-in tournament.
“We want to make the playoffs. We feel we have a chance to do that — it’s not out of reach,” Wizards Coach Scott Brooks said this week.
There are clear reasons the playoff goals Washington dreamed of at the season’s outset are still achievable. First, the Wizards have improved their defense so much recently that in the past 11 games — beginning with the five-game winning streak they rattled off in mid-February — their defensive rating stands eighth in the league, compared with 27th for the season.
The other reason is just as straightforward. Russell Westbrook, recovered from a quadriceps injury that nagged him through the first month or so of the season, is looking more like Russell Westbrook. The point guard can make or break games for Washington, as evidenced by his game-sealing rebound against the Clippers on Thursday night.
“Those are the plays that only a handful of guys in the league can make,” Brooks said of Westbrook’s dead sprint from beyond the three-point line to crash the glass.
He had been settling for jumpers and poorly timed three-pointers earlier this season, but with his leg healed, Westbrook is bouncier, faster and more muscular in getting to the rim, where he is historically at his best. According to the advanced statistics website Cleaning the Glass, 27 percent of the point guard’s shots were coming at the rim before Feb. 14, when the Wizards began their winning streak.
In the past 11 games, that number has bumped up to 33 percent — not near his numbers last year, when nearly half of all of his shots were right at the basket — but trending in the right direction.
Earlier this week, Westbrook said he has spent a large part of the past few weeks trying to work out what he can do on and off the court to improve Washington’s chances. That included smarter play, cutting the fat out of his game and leaning more on what he does best, as well as figuring out his teammates’ preferred communication styles. Brooks and his players often give props to Westbrook for his vocal leadership, commonly calling it a turning point both in individual games and in the season as a whole.
“Not yet,” Westbrook said Wednesday in response to a question about whether he is closer to the player he wants to be with the Wizards. “Every day I’m trying to figure out … how to be better, what more I can do to implement [success in] the team, the organization, to make sure I’m moving in the right direction. But we’re right there. I’m very optimistic about where we are as a team.”
Westbrook’s ability to fire up Washington when it needs it most is why Brooks can live with the downsides of Westbrook’s game. Wagner, who has served as a much-needed spark of energy during the Wizards’ turnaround, spoke Thursday about the point guard’s impact on the team’s younger, developing players.
“He’s been great for me, with personal growth, as a player,” Wagner said. “I was thinking this before the game today: Man, he’s one of these players — I had one guy in college be this for me, too — [who] has more trust in me than myself sometimes. That’s unbelievable to me. What I respect about him, he’s not perfect, he knows it, and he works so hard every day. Takes his job so serious. I don’t know how he calms down after games, because he’s always on. You see him after halftime like hyping himself up, and I’m like, ‘Jesus, this guy doesn’t stop.’ ”
On the court, the 32-year-old hasn’t been as consistent as he would like, and his team-leading 4.8 turnovers per game are a shade high for Brooks’s liking. He is also shooting a career-worst 58.3 percent at the foul line.
Brooks doesn’t often make excuses for Westbrook’s shortcomings. But, in part because of the reasons Wagner detailed, he doesn’t seem to mind them much, either.
“Russell has not shot the ball well from the free throw line — you can’t run from that; I don’t run from it,” Brooks said Thursday. “I still trust him. … I want him to make them. He wants to make them. His teammates want him to make them. That’s all I care about. He’s not going up there trying to miss. He does so many great things for us. The professionalism that he brings is — I would take that 1,000 times over a missed free throw here and there. Even five free throws, I’ll take ’em. Maybe not eight, but five for sure.”
Brooks, too, was clearly in a joking mood heading into the break. But despite Westbrook’s success and the Wizards’ happiness as they begin their short vacation, no one on a sub-.500 team with 38 games to play was getting ahead of himself.
“We’re always in the mind-set [of] we still have a lot of work to do,” all-star starter Bradley Beal said after beating the Clippers. “We still haven’t accomplished much. It’s a great way to enter the break, but [Memphis] beat us before this; we’ve still got them the first game coming out. So we’ve definitely still got that in the back of our head. We’ve got to make sure we’re ready to go come next week.”