DA's Morning Tip

Wizards work together to conjure up in-season turnaround

Led by All-Star guard John Wall, Washington has gone 20-7 since Dec. 6 and is looking formidable in the Eastern Conference

The question is simple, given all that has come before: do the Washington Wizards dislike the Boston Celtics, Bradley Beal?

“Yeah,” Beal said last Tuesday, after a beat. “I guess, yeah, you could say that. And they don’t like us. It is what it is. I think we’re all grown men and we’re just able to play ball. It makes it more competitive, right? That’s like playoff basketball halfway through the season. It gives you a little taste and a little foreshadow of what may come.”

This makes me happy.

The NBA of my youth and my early career was one filled with rancor, petty jealousies, cheap shots, occasional brawls and — if we were really lucky — genuine hatreds. The Detroit Pistons hated the Chicago Bulls, and vice versa. The Celtics hated the Los Angeles Lakers, and vice versa. It made the competitions between those teams, and others with similar animosities toward one another, that much deeper and meaningful.

Today’s league is much more fraternal, comfier, chummy. Guys play with and against one another for years on the AAU circuit before they ever set foot in NBA arenas. Hey, the world changes. It’s fine if guys are friendlier with one another these days. But sometimes you miss the old battles. And that’s why even a minor tempest between teams, as with the Wizards and Celtics last week, draws so much attention.

It was the culmination of a couple of year’s worth of dustups — Jae Crowder accusing then-Wizards coach Randy Wittman of cursing at him during a game a year ago. Marcus Smart breaking Beal’s nose and giving him a concussion with an elbow a little more than a week later. Crowder sticking a finger in John Wall’s face after the Celtics handled the Wizards in Boston last month, which led to shoves and postgame woofing, and fines for both Wall and Crowder.

So Washington’s decision for all players to wear all black, as in, going to a funeral, before last week’s rematch with Boston added a little more spice to the mix.

“My daughter texted me, and said ‘do not wear your black jeans to the game, ‘cause you look a little chunky in them,’” Wizards Coach Scott Brooks said.

It was the sort of stunt that would lead to deserved derision if it backfired. But, it didn’t. The Wizards led the Celtics wire to wire, the latest in an impressive string of victories that has vaulted them into the heart of the playoff chase in the Eastern Conference. Friday, they smoked the Hawks in Atlanta by 28. Sunday, they beat the Pelicans in New Orleans, their fourth road win in their last five games, after posting just four wins away from Verizon Center in their first 17 road games.

They are a half-game behind Atlanta in the Southeast Division. Keep in mind that Washington has not won a division championship (not that division titles mean that much anymore) since 1979. Again: 1979. More to the point, they’re just two games out of second place in the Eastern Conference, which would mean, potentially, home-court advantage until the conference finals.

And that matters because the Wizards have won 14 straight at home, the team’s longest home win streak since 1989, not having lost since the team’s nadir this season — a loss to Orlando Dec. 6, in which Wall scored a career-high, but ultimately meaningless, 52 points. The Wizards weren’t guarding anybody, Ernie Grunfeld’s team presidency was the subject of nightly digital bonfires, his team floundering. Know-it-alls in the media wondered about the echoes of not getting Kevin Durant to come home in the summer.

But since then, Washington has gone 20-7, with wins over the LA Clippers, Memphis Grizzlies, Celtics, Hawks and Charlotte Hornets. Their offense has become one of the league’s best — seventh-highest offensive rating during that stretch (110.1 points per 100 possessions), their defense one of the stingiest (fifth in the NBA, at 105.0 points per 100 allowed). The starting five of Wall, Beal, Otto Porter, Markieff Morris and Marcin Gortat has become as effective as any in basketball.

What in the name of Westley Sissel Unseld is going on here?

“Everybody just looked themselves in the mirror and challenged themselves to be better,” Wall said on the way to the airport Sunday night. “I had to get in better shape so I can be better at both ends of the floor. When I’m in shape I can be aggressive and create shots for everybody and be active on defense, and that helps us as a team.”

Wall had surgeries on both knees in the offseason. He was slow for long stretches last year, when Washington stumbled to a 41-41 mark after making the playoffs the two previous seasons. He says he expected the Wizards to get right back to postseason-level play when he was back to being himself. So he beat the expectations of the medical staff that thought he wouldn’t be able to play in back-to-backs until January.

Wall made his fourth straight All-Star team, again outstanding at both ends — second in the league in assists per game (10.3) and in steals per game (2.2). He’s averaging a career-best 22.9 points per game. But he’s also shooting a career best 46 percent, with a career high in effective field goal percentage (49.1).

In the first year of his max ($128 million) contract, Beal is handling the ball more than ever and making plays on the weakside of the offense. Both he and Wall are freed up by Gortat, who has led the league in screen assists per game (6.8) almost all season, per NBA.com/Stats, and is as efficient as ever, living in the paint — he’s tied with Steven Adams for sixth in the league in field goal percentage at .593.

The Wizards’ starting five has become lethal offense under Brooks. The Wizards still run Wall off a few dozen high screen and rolls with Gortat every game, just as they did before. But the Wizards have been much more efficient, with the ball in the right people’s hands.

Brooks told Porter to stop cutting so much baseline off of Wall and spot up. The 23-year-old Porter — a restricted free agent next summer after he and Washington couldn’t reach an extension — is responding with a career year, leading the league in 3-point percentage (.468). His True Shooting Percentage of .647 is fifth in the NBA among players who’ve been in 40 or more games and played 20 or minutes per game and his Effective Field Goal Percentage of .632 ranks fourth.

He’s on the short, short list for Most Improved Player, playing the way he did in the 2015 postseason for Washington.

“Everybody talks about Wall and Beal but Porter’s ascension has been huge for them,” Celtics Coach Brad Stevens said last week.

Morris isn’t a classic stretch four, but he’s trying, shooting an astronomical (for him) 41.5 percent on 3-pointers in January. His deep shooting during this recent stretch may not be sustainable, but he does give the Wizards a low-post option, legit toughness and is posting career highs in rebounds (6.7 per game).

“We all trust and know where we’re going to get our shots from,” Wall said. “Kieff’s coming in, being aggressive. Gortat’s setting screens.”

The Wizards’ bench was a sieve the first month of the season, blowing leads the starters achieved and letting games get out of hand before the starters could return. Things have improved individually, if not collectively. Brooks now keeps either Morris or Beal, and sometimes both, on the floor with the bench players who’ve picked up their play. (The Wizards still are waiting for center Ian Mahinmi, who got a four-year, $64 million deal last summer, to get back on the floor after getting PRP treatment in December in both knees; he’s played in just one game this season.)

That’s forced Jason Smith, who was supposed to be the third string center, into nightly duty. He was awful in November, but has been very solid in December and January, shooting 58.4 percent (73 of 125) from the floor. Guard Trey Burke has also overcome a rough start, shooting 49 percent in December and January.

And second-year forward Kelly Oubre has been a defensive Swiss Army Knife that Brooks uses where needed. His length is one of the reasons Washington is tied with the Warriors for the league lead in deflections per game.

“Everybody just looked themselves in the mirror and challenged themselves to be better.”

— Washington Wizards All-Star guard John Wall

The five-man unit with Oubre on the floor in place of Morris has been insane defensively — 91.7 points per 100 — and has a net rating of 28.9, sixth-best in the league among units that have played in 10 or more games together. He and Porter are basically interchangeable with their length and quick feet. They switch everything. The 6-foot-9 Oubre has guarded the 5-foot-9 Isaiah Thomas, the 6-foot-8 Carmelo Anthony, the 6-foot-4 Jrue Holiday and anyone else that gives the Wizards problems down the stretch of games.

“I guess that’s my job now,” Oubre said. “I kind of got the memo now; I gotta guard everybody. But I love it. I just want to be the best I can be … we switch one through four. There’s no pressure. When we’re on the floor together we know for sure we’re going to be able to switch. If I get beat, (Porter) has my back. If I get beat, I’ve got his back, and John, Brad, everybody.

The Wizards have played Morris some at the five with Porter and Oubre up front, too, and switch one through five.

“We try to switch some stuff whenever Kieff’s out there, but sometimes the matchups aren’t what we want,” Beal said. “But for the most part, in that small lineup, yeah, we switch everything. “We’re all the same size. We all rebound pretty much the same. And we realize that we have to defend and help each other. And that’s what’s turned everything around.”

The Wizards have been aided by a fairly easy schedule, and March is going to be a bear: two West coast trips and 13 of 20 games on the road. The starters are logging huge minutes and an injury to any of the five would be devastating, for each carries a large load and responsibilities.

But none are as key as Wall. The Wizards go as he goes, and right now, he’s going as well as anyone at his position.

“I knew what it was going to be when I got better,” Wall said Sunday. “And I challenged myself.”

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Longtime NBA reporter, columnist and Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer David Aldridge is an analyst for TNT. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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