WASHINGTON -- Once regarded as precious and rare, a Wizards win at home is becoming seemingly commonplace. After a hard-fought defensive showdown against Chicago, the Wizards eked out a four-point win against a fellow top-10 defensive team and notched their eighth win in a row at home. Ho hum.
But it wasn't so long ago that any win -- let alone a close win -- was unfamiliar territory for this team.
At the beginning of the season -- oh, I don't know, let's say the first 33 games or so -- this team was on the wrong side of many close games. In those 33 games, 15 of them were decided by six points (aka, two possessions) or fewer. I'll give you a minute to guess how many of those 15 the Wizards won. [Twiddles thumbs]. OK, you back? What's your guess? Was it three? Then congratulations, you've won our very depressing prize: more sadness!
Just kidding about the sadness stuff, folks. But I'm not kidding about only having three close wins.
Since John Wall's return (41 games), the Wizards have had 16 games decided by six points or fewer -- including last night's game. Guess how many of those they've won. Give up? Eight. Or as I like to say "half." They've won half of them, and that fits squarely into the "our reasonable goal is to be a .500 team this season" mantra from the Wizards brass.
"It just shows how far we've come," Bradley Beal said. "We let a lot of close games slip away from us, but I think we did a great job of staying poised and composed and actually pulling it out in the end. It just shows the vets that we have, they were able to go out there and execute ... And [having] John [Wall] back is a huge plus for us."
The defense, as we know, has been elite all season long. We've been reminded that every other top-10 defensive team in the league is safely headed to the playoffs (None of those other teams are ranked 30th in offensive efficiency, though). But Washington's defense, as good as it has been, has gotten better. A lot of that has to do with John Wall coming back. Before Wall returned, the Wizards were 12th in the league in defensive efficiency (points scored against, per 100 possessions); they're now seventh.
But as Beal said, a lot more of the defensive prowess of this team has to do with the veterans in the rotation. The Wizards, like many other non-playoff teams, have several young players on the roster. But besides Wall and Beal, their core is full of experienced and defensively-savvy veterans. Nene, Trevor Ariza, Emeka Okafor, and Martell Webster? Those guys have been around for a while and know their way around a defensive playbook or two.
This whole defense thing? The Wizards have that down pretty well. But confidence? That's pretty new.
"You know, when you win a few games like that, you start believing and thinking that you're supposed to be winning those games, as opposed to earlier in the year, we were losing all the close ones," A.J. Price said. "Now, we're just playing hard, and down the stretch we really feel like we're going to win."
Randy Wittman joked last night that he would rather the team "click on all cylinders and win by 20." But he knew that the way the team played -- keeping it close and playing hard defensively -- was positive growth.
"This is how you get to that point we're trying to get to. This is where the Chicago's and Miami's [are]. They don't have their 'A' games all the time. They fight and scratch and claw and win a game here and win a game there," Wittman said. "Then all of a sudden, you have three or four great offensive games, and now you're looking at a seven-eight-nine game winning streak instead of two or three. I really took a lot from it."
This, Wittman knows, is what separates good teams from bad. With a strong defense and an ever-growing confidence, the Wizards seem to be moving in that direction.