March is going out like a lamb, and things are mostly good. Six wins in our last seven games. A 36-33 record that puts us a full game up on streaking Philadelphia for fifth place and just three games back of Cleveland for fourth. A satisfying win over a Detroit team that may or may not have been trying. A healthy Caron Butler, teamed with a torrid Antawn Jamison and a group of role players predominantly playing their best ball of the season.
Perhaps this narrative doesn't sound completely familiar, but there were similar good feelings last year at this time. We weren't leading the East like we were in January, but we still had the Southeast lead, a Big 3 playing to their full potential, and a very good chance at advancing in the playoffs. More importantly, we were coming off an outstanding win over New Orleans, which seemed to quench the fire developed from heartbreaking losses to the Knicks (Steve Francis game) and the Heat (Udonis Haslem on Antawn Jamison game). This West Coast swing was to be the season's defining moment, where we either asserted ourselves in the Eastern Conference race or faded into the middle of the pack.
What happened? I think we all know.
Portland 100, Washington 98. Gilbert goes 4-16 in his return to Portland and air balls a wide-open layup that would have tied the game.
Washington 108, Seattle 106. Gilbert bails the team out at the buzzer, but commenter Josh300 hit the nail on the head. The fact that it took a buzzer beater to defeat a Sonics team missing Ray Allen sealed the Wizards fate as a pretender.
Golden State 135, Washington 128. With the Warriors driving at will to the basket, Eddie Jordan decides the best philosophy is to put no interior defenders on the floor. Also, the starters come out with a lack of concentration in the third and are outscored 38-21.
LA Clippers 111, Washington 105. Once again, the third quarter proves to be the killer.
Utah 103, Washington 97. This had it all. Blown third quarter lead. Smallball in the fourth. A missed defensive assignment leading to the dagger shot.
Five games. Four losses. Four games decided by seven points or less. Five games in which the Wizards had a halftime lead. Three losses to sub .500 teams, one to a Warriors squad just finding themselves, and one to a Jazz team that was struggling a bit.
Those five games were a microcosm of last season. Even when we were leading the East, things were going a little too well. We were allowing lesser teams to keep games close, and it finally took its toll. We were struggling to put together consistent play, and we weren't playing defense. Our offense, while effective, lacked organization, making it easy to stop when necessary, and our coach was tinkering heavily, looking for solutions in all the wrong places. We all knew these things even when the team was winning, but they finally showed up during that West Coast swing. When the team returned, they did so without the Southeast lead, and it's doubtful that they would have won a series even if they were all healthy.
So what happens this time around? My guess is that if the trip is a microcosm of the entire season, like it was last year, we're in good shape. This year's team doesn't have nearly as much talent, but they're more organized, play better defense, and have better coaching. We give a more consistent level of play, whereas last year we may have had great stretches followed by awful stretches. We don't have the talent, and we aren't going anywhere significant in the playoffs without more of it, but we're more prepared for gut checks like this.
The schedule once again is pretty tame, though the Lakers and Jazz loom at the end of the trip. If we beat the teams we should, that'll put us at 3-2 and 39-35 overall. No matter what happens with the Sixers and Raptors, I'm happy with that result.
Game thread of the first big test of the season to follow.