You couldn’t blame anyone for figuring the Washington Wizards had no chance Monday night against the Portland Trail Blazers. But after failing in repeated previous attempts to move above .500, the Wizards finally got there with a 100-90 victory at Verizon Center. It certainly took long enough.
Although the long-struggling franchise has the talent to attain some of its goals, Washington first had to accomplish a modest one. Producing a winning record — even by only one game — this late in a season should instill confidence in a team figuring out how to win. Perhaps the District’s wait-and-see hoops fans will view the accomplishment as a move in the right direction. The Wizards couldn’t advance until they cleared a hurdle that was all in their heads.
Any improving team could stumble once or twice while trying to take a step forward. It’s called learning. The Wizards, however, squandered their first seven opportunities this season to break free from break even. They hadn’t had a winning record since Oct. 31, 2009. The Wizards claimed they weren’t worried about their .500 barrier — but the truth came out after they broke through it.
Guard Bradley Beal exhaled after the Wizards got “over the hump. . . . We definitely deserve it. We put in the work, we compete every night. We play together and have fun.”
On Monday, the Wizards played well defensively after halftime, limiting Portland to 35 points during the final two quarters.
In the first two games of their homestand, the Wizards have shown how good they can be in victories over Western Conference powers Oklahoma City and Portland.
They need to remember the feeling, Nene said: “We can’t just get stuck on .500. When you dream, you need to dream big.”
Washington expects to make its first playoff appearance in six seasons. With the Eastern Conference being so bad, the Wizards may qualify for the eight-team field even if they finish with a losing record. Still, the Wizards believe they’re good. A team’s record provides proof.
By moving to 24-23, the Wizards have some to offer, forward Kevin Seraphin said.
“It feels great with everything we’ve been through,” said Seraphin, who scored 19 points off the bench. “A lot of losing. Now we start winning. This winning feeling is great.”
Some NBA observers would suggest there’s not much difference in having a .500 record or being a few games above or below that mark. Teams in the range, they’d say, are pretty much the same. The Wizards, though, are different.
It has been a long climb back to respectability for a club that was torn apart by the recklessness of former franchise player Gilbert Arenas. After making four consecutive postseason appearances beginning in the 2004-05 season, the Wizards started over.
The Wizards made some big mistakes along the way — how else would you describe investing heavily in Andray Blatche? — but eventually assembled their current solid, hardworking group. Obviously, Coach Randy Wittman is pleased the Wizards went up another rung, but he said: “I don’t want them to focus on a number. I want them to focus on the act of why you’re 24-23. And that’s where you keep it going.
“That’s where you get on a run. I want this team to get on a run. They’ve never been on a run. That’s how you do it — each and every night the same way. We’re not changing. We’re playing one way. That’s the way we’ve got to play. And that’s when you get to be able to really take off. That’s what I want.”
Point guard John Wall wants it, too. The 2010 No. 1 overall pick was drafted into a miserable environment. He spent his first two years working with selfish knuckleheads who couldn’t teach him the right way to play in the NBA, because they had no clue how to, either.
It’s no coincidence the Wizards’ turnaround has accelerated as Wall, who led the Wizards with 22 points, has become an all-star in his fourth season. He represents the hope management has for a much brighter future — which doesn’t involve the Wizards being a middling .500 team.
“Give credit [for the improvement] to the young guys, who have been here for a while,” Wall said, “[for] how hard they’ve worked and tried to get better.”
Wall kept the moment in perspective, reminding his teammates “it’s only one game over. But, yeah, it’s a big relief. We’ve got bigger goals: to try to keep winning games and try to not to go back down, so we won’t have to have this talk again.”
For the first time since Arenas thought it would be a good idea to bring guns into the locker room, the Wizards have a team capable of going places. And by finally clearing a bar — albeit a low one — they just may have started on their way.
For more by Jason Reid, visit washingtonpost.com/reid.