Coach Erik Spoelstra experienced some flashbacks from the visitors’ bench Sunday night at Verizon Center, as his nearly full-strength Miami Heat pummeled the severely undermanned Washington Wizards. Considered an Eastern Conference contender before the season started, the Wizards are limping through the season, their roster ravaged by injuries unlike any other team’s in the NBA, and Spoelstra could relate.
“It reminds me of what we had to go through last year,” Spoelstra said after his Heat routed a nine-man Wizards team, 97-75.
Even without LeBron James, the Heat was still expected to remain in the playoff hunt behind the leadership of Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. But injuries besieged the Heat, and by the time it traded for point guard Goran Dragic, it was 23-30. Yet Miami remained in playoff contention because the East was so mediocre and — thanks to the surprising emergence of Hassan Whiteside as a force inside — it employed one of the best starting lineups in basketball.
But the quintet, rounded out by Luol Deng, never played together. The day after Dragic was acquired from the Phoenix Suns, the Heat announced Bosh was out for the remainder of the season because of blood clots on one of his lungs. The Heat finished 10th in the Eastern Conference at 37-45. Only one player, Mario Chalmers, appeared in more than 72 games. Injuries ruined the season.
The Wizards are not at that juncture yet. They sit in 11th place in the East at 15-17, 21/2 games behind the Boston Celtics for the eighth and final playoff spot and five games behind the second-place Chicago Bulls with 50 games to play entering Monday’s slate. The East is deeper than in recent years, but climbing the standings rapidly is possible because so few games separate teams.
Washington has proven capable of winning shorthanded — it recently posted a season-best four-game win streak — thanks to John Wall’s stellar play, which earned him the Eastern Conference’s player of the month award for December on Monday. But consistency has been fleeting for a team so reliant on one player with as many as six sitting out each game.
“That’s part of this game. It doesn’t matter who you are,” Wizards Coach Randy Wittman said before Sunday’s loss. “When we do get healthy, it should make us a stronger team because we’ve got guys out here that have played a lot of good minutes, quality minutes, that maybe wouldn’t have otherwise.”
The question is whether the Wizards can get healthy enough before succumbing to the Heat’s fate from a year ago. Bradley Beal, the team’s second-leading scorer, has missed 12 games because of a stress reaction in his lower right fibula and hasn’t resumed basketball activities. Nene, the team’s potent backup center, has missed 19 because of a strained left calf, and though he has amped up his workload recently, his return date remains uncertain.
Gary Neal, the team’s top bench scorer, has been in and out of the lineup because of back and quad ailments and has not played in five straight games. Alan Anderson (ankle) won’t make his season debut until at least the end of January. DeJuan Blair (knee) has missed the past three games, and Drew Gooden III returned from a 21-game absence in Friday’s win over the Orlando Magic only to strain his right calf again. He didn’t play Sunday.
In the meantime, the Wizards’ schedule isn’t conceding any breaks. Wednesday night’s meeting with the first-place Cleveland Cavaliers will be their fourth of eight consecutive games against teams over .500. After hosting Cleveland, the Toronto Raptors come to the District on Friday before the Wizards go on a two-game road trip to face the Magic and the Bulls.
“We’ll hold the fort down as long as we have to,” Wizards guard Garrett Temple said.