After beginning the season 6-17, the Washington Wizards were among the league’s most disappointing teams. Seemingly out of nowhere, they have now won seven of their last eight games. Washington is only a game and a half out of the Eastern Conference playoff picture. All of a sudden, the Wizards are meeting their preseason expectations.

This hot-streak in the standings is made more impressive by the quality of teams Washington has defeated of late. This includes wins over three of last year’s Conference-finalists in the Denver Nuggets, Los Angeles Lakers, and Boston Celtics. Granted, those teams were missing key rotational players while the Wizards sported a mostly healthy roster, but a win is a win. Not to mention these victories falling in a succession of one another speaks to collective and consistent execution.

As the Wizards de facto best-player, Bradley Beal sets the tone for his team on a night-by-night basis. As the league’s leading scorer, Beal is used to carrying the brunt of his team’s scoring load. However, what stands out from the past eight games in relation to the first quarter of the season is his efficiency of late.

Over his last eight games, Beal is averaging 32.8 points, equal to his season average. Moreover, he is shooting 52.8 percent from the field. This is a significant detail. Perhaps it is indicative of his elite scoring capabilities. Even so, my hunch is that it has something to do with the Wizards supporting cast. Certain players have stepped up. So rather than pool their efforts into stopping one player, Washington opponents must now account for a multi-faceted attack.

In other words, the Wizards look like an actualized NBA team rather than a one-man band.

Welcome Russell Westbrook to the Wizards

Fact: Russell Westbrook is among the most polarizing players of his generation. (I believe James Harden and Draymond Green are his competitors for this crown.) NBA fans and writers alike will debate his 2017 MVP trophy and fit alongside Kevin Durant until the end of time. His issues with shooting efficiency and pursuit of the highlight pass have been much maligned for years.

Well, say what you will about the guy he is a bad-ass on the glass. Triple-double wanderlust aside and all that, it is a joy to watch Westbrook corral rebounds in traffic amongst the trees. Robin Lopez has become his new Steven Adams; the guy who just wants to hit bodies and box out rather than boost his stats. The energy is infectious for a mostly young team.

Westbrook is healthy after dealing with his quad injury. After damning shot-selection due to his lack of explosion, the former-MVP is attacking the paint like he did last year with the Houston Rockets. This appears to be correlated to Beal’s improved field goal percentage.

His shot quality may never be ideal, but his leadership and tenacity are hitting their marks once again. So please join me in welcoming (the real) Russell Westbrook to Washington DC!

Ish Smith is Out and Raul Neto is In

The Wizards have played their past eight games without Ish Smith. The veteran guard is out with a quad injury that will sideline him for the next six weeks, give or take. Smith is the nominal back-up behind Westbrook, although he may have lost that job to Raul Neto.

Neto and Smith are both undersized at the point guard position, and at a disadvantage on defense. Smith’s calling card on that end is his water-bug speed. For Neto, it is his pitbull disposition. The Brazilian appears more engaged in schemes than Smith and more adept at handling switches. Not to mention, on offense Neto is a superior spot-up shooter and frisky driving to the basket.

What more could you ask for out of a back-up point guard?

With Neto, Lopez, Deni Avdija, and the bench bellwether, Davis Bertans, Washington has figured out a solid reserve unit. They have been huge for the team’s recent success. Neto is integral to the second unit’s ability to score and get stops.

Rui Hachimura is the Wizards’ Two-Way Talent

Some interesting lineup data for Washington over the past eight games:

  • The Wizards’ most-played trio of players during their eight-game surge involves Beal, Westbrook, and Rui Hachimura.
  • Through 182 minutes, they have posted a positive 5.7 net advantage per 100 possessions for Washington (per tracking data).

Who is the Wizards best three-man lineup during that same span?

  • The trio of Beal, Hachimura, and Lopez (86 minutes) are outscoring teams by 31.5 points per 100 possessions. That’s no typo. In roughly 10 minutes per game together, they’re lighting the world on fire!

Beal is expected in both these lineups as the team’s best player. On the other hand, Hachimura is a fascinating constant. He is filling the breaks, crashing the glass, and often taking the other team’s toughest defensive assignment. Until last night’s game against Minnesota, the second-year man out of Gonzaga scored double-figure points in the previous ten games. To accel as a supporting piece alongside two high-usage guards is a revelation for the Wizards.

Hachimura’s ascension into being a core member of crunch-time lineups originated with his commitment to defense and steady scoring outputs. Above all, he is undoubtedly impacting his team’s ability to win.

The Wizards take on the Boston Celtics tonight at 7 pm.
Follow @KyleEdwords and @HoopsBellyUp for more NBA content.
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Kyle Edwards

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