When we last saw the Washington Wizards, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter and crew were winning seven of nine games even as John Wall recovered from knee surgery. Coming away with only two losses over the next five games would be quite the accomplishment.
Consider the following as the Wizards (33-24) return from the All-Star break fourth in the Eastern Conference. Of their next 15 games, 14 are against teams currently holding playoff position. Wall’s recovery timeline suggests the five-time All-Star could miss them all.
Yet it’s this immediate stretch starting with Thursday’s meeting in Cleveland that on paper may be the most daunting. Washington is 2-9 this season against their next five opponents.
Thursday, at Cavaliers (0-2): Of all the contenders in either conference, the Wizards have looked most overmatched against Cleveland. LeBron James scored 57 points in a 130-122 win on Nov. 3 and then notched a triple-double during a 106-99 victory on Dec. 17. Both of those games were in Washington. Cleveland won its last four games before the All-Star break as James’s vibe went from sour to smiley after the Cavaliers shook up their roster with a series of trades.
Friday, Hornets (0-2): The Wizards blew a nine-point lead with less than four minutes remaining in regulation before falling 129-124 in overtime on Nov. 22. They were embarrassed in the next meeting, falling 133-109 as Charlotte set a franchise-record with 77 points in the first half. Both games were in Charlotte.
Sunday, 76ers (1-2): Washington won the regular season opener for both teams at home, but Philadelphia dominated the next two games on its turf. The Wizards trailed by 22 points in both games. 76ers All-Star center Joel Embiid is averaging 23.3 points, 13.3 rebounds and 2.7 blocks against Washington. Philadelphia, which entered the All-Star break with a five-game winning streak, sank 39.5 percent of its 3-pointers against the Wizards.
Feb. 27, at Bucks (1-2): The two sides met twice in Washington within a 10-day span last month. In both games, Washington had late leads only for Milwaukee to have the better finishing kick. Giannis Antetokounmpo had 27 points and a career-high 20 rebounds in the second of those two road wins, a 104-95 victory on Jan. 15. The Bucks closed the game with a 15-3 run as the Wizards committed 24 turnovers overall.
Feb. 28, Warriors (0-1): Losing to the defending NBA champs does not put the Wizards in exclusive company. In fact, Washington’s 120-117 loss on Oct. 27 stood out as something of an early-season positive considering the Wizards hung tough despite Bradley Beal’s first-half ejection following a tussle with Draymond Green. Otto Porter (29 points, 10 rebounds) was arguably the best player in the game, though Kevin Durant scored 31.
Not only have the Wizards labored against this group, they also must deal with two sets of back-to-back games and five games in seven days. Two of these opponents live in the NBA Finals. With all due respect to James Harden, the argument for the NBA’s best player is between James or Durant. Some think Antetokounmpo could hold that distinction soon enough while Embiid’s upside remains immense. Charlotte’s Kemba Walker played in Sunday’s All-Star game.
Yet the Wizards’ most consistent play this season came in the nine games before the All-Star break. Washington led the league in assists (30.4), steals (9.7) and free throw percentage (85.7) in that span while ranking ninth in scoring (111.6 points) and scoring defense (105.2).
The Wizards, who are 1.5 games back of third place Cleveland two games up on seventh place Philadelphia, should also have addition reinforcements. The team is expected to fill at least one of their two open roster spots shortly after the All-Star break, according to a league source. Guard depth remains the primary focus. Ty Lawson, Donald Sloan, Briante Weber and Ramon Sessions are among the reported options.
Only Toronto (8-1) has a better winning percentage among East teams over the past nine games and that loss came at Washington Feb.1. The Raptors and Wizards close out their regular season series at Capital One Arena two days after the Warriors visit.
Including the Toronto meeting, Washington will be on national television five times in the opening six games. Even without Wall, there are reasons for league-wide fans to check out the Wizards. The most subtle of them may be how they handle these next five games.