TORONTO — Face it: The NBA is the Golden State Warriors, Cleveland Cavaliers, maybe the San Antonio Spurs and Houston Rockets… and a whole lot of “what-ifs.”
Such as: What if the Washington Wizards started to play like a team that — I don’t know – actually liked each other? The way they seem to be doing heading into the second game of a home-and-home against the Toronto Raptors on Friday?
“That’s the best we’ve played, the best continuity and unison we’ve had,” Bradley Beal said after Wednesday’s 105-96–win over the Raptors. “It looked like we liked each other.”
His coach, Scott Brooks, looked at a stat sheet that showed 32 assists on 40 field goals and said, “That’s probably as good as we can play offensively.”
Those familiar with the over-analyzed relationship between Beal and backcourt partner John Wall – remember how much of a deal it was when the two sat two vacant chairs apart during a summer-league game? - will take note of the statement. All but given up for dead after a 2-8 start and life and death to reach .500 by New Year's Day (they beat the Brooklyn Nets 118–95 on Dec. 30 to go 18-18, then lost their next two games), the Wizards are now in third place in the Eastern Conference and are in the middle of a 20–5 run.
Once a team with the tightest rotation in the NBA, the Wizards’ revamped bench blitzed the Raptors on Wednesday, keying a second-quarter outburst by going 10-for-10 with four blocks and seven assists. Bojan Bogdanovic, acquired from the Nets at the trade deadline, went off for 27 bench points. And the Wizards will get further bench support with the addition of guard Brandon Jennings.
It was a shocking loss for the Kyle Lowry–less Raptors, who have gone from biding their time until an inevitable meeting with the Cavaliers in the Eastern final to worrying about the Boston Celtics and now the Wizards to looking at the Atlanta Hawks creeping up behind them while no doubt wondering what happens if they get the Chicago Bulls at some point in the post-season. Not good.
The Raptors had won eight consecutive games against the Wizards before Wednesday’s loss. They were rested and waiting for a team that left it all out on the court the night before against the Warriors, a team whose big man (Marcin Gortat) was called for two early fouls. They ran into a buzzsaw — a team that went into the game fully understanding the significance of this home-and-home series.
“We look at these two games as an opportunity,” said Beal, who had 23 points in the win. “We tied up the series with this win. Now we’re looking ahead to Friday. We’re looking at playoff matchups, and we want to stay in that two or three seed as much as possible. You talk about taking it one game at a time... but at the same time, we’re definitely focused on the playoffs.”
“We kind of looked at it like this: We only play (the Raptors) three times, and right now they’re not the same team. We have a chance to go home and take over the season series and this is a key spot for us, because we’re back and forth right now.”
Beal noted that these two franchises have a history.
“It’s like a lot of us have developed at the same time,” he said. “These games are really competitive; they’re always fun.”
Indeed, now that the Raptors' eight-game run of success against the Wizards has been put to bed it seems timely to remember that it was the Wizards who swept Toronto in the first round of the 2014–2015 playoffs. They are a former thorn in the Raptors' side, so this renaissance under Brooks bears watching. This is a coach who is used to handling high-profile personalities from his time with the Thunder, and in his post-game session Wednesday he spent a great deal of time talking about togetherness and professionalism and culture building with a team that has too often seemed a collection of talented satellites lacking a core.
Brooks acknowledged that he is still “trying to figure out the emotional ups and downs of his team,” and stresses he’s not just interested in a good few months.
“I’d like to see us continue this way for a few years,” Brooks said.
The addition of Bogdanovic and Jennings has introduced a welcomed mid-season wrinkle. Candidly, Wall said he believed the effectiveness of the second unit – Bogdanovic, the energetic Kelly Oubre, Jr., Tomas Satoransky and Jason Smith - caught the Raptors off-guard.
“It’s going to help us make sure that our guys are better rested when they come in for that first stint in the second quarter,” Brooks said. “Brandon not only can play with our second unit, but I think he can play alongside John, or maybe alongside both John and Brad.”
Brooks believed his fresher, better-rested starters were better able to handle the Raptors' DeMar DeRozan on Wednesday. He knows that will be key once again on Friday.
“We haven’t played him particularly well in the past,” Brooks said. “He’s a handful. He has great size and it’s hard to contest his shot because he has such a high release, and has such a great shot fake. Really... I think we did about as well as we can possibly do against him tonight (Wednesday).”
Think about that. The Wizards players and their coach sensed they had just played maybe their best offensive game of the year; that they played with maybe their highest level of sustained energy and continuity and they played as well as they possibly can against one of the NBA’s superstars – and they weren’t talking about a win over the best team in the league. The Warriors, it turned out, were a tune-up for the Raptors.
And don’t look now, but the road to Cleveland has just become a great deal more difficult because one more "what-if" might be in the process of being erased. The Wizards like each other. They’re happy. Who saw that coming?