Rewind to last year and Wizards fans everywhere were lamenting about the team's inescapable mediocrity.
The Wizards were reeling after a four game losing streak and a 9-13 record, with losses to Milwaukee, Cleveland, Toronto (pre-Rudy Gay trade) and Philadelphia - all below .500 teams. The team's tendencies represented one stuck between being at the bottom of the barrel: not good enough to be described as contender, let alone a sleeper team. They blew leads and inexplicably lost to inferior teams, all while letting their effort continue to waver.
Were is the key word here.
Sunday night, the Wizards started slow. The focus was not there, turning the ball over seven times in the first half, forcing shots, and allowing offensive possessions to stifle the offense - they scored only 37 points in the game's first 24 minutes on one of the worst defenses in the league. They looked like last year's Wizards, coming off a big win against a great team and laying an egg against a lesser team the next contest. Paul Pierce elaborated on their struggles post-game: "We turned the ball over a lot early. Then we did not rebound it. We looked at it at the half when they had about 15 or 20 fast break points and then another 10 points in offensive rebounds and we said that's the game. We have to concentrate our effort, come out the second half and take care of the ball."
The second half was a different story.
The Wizards turned it around offensively in the 2nd half, and had continued to show a resilience that we had not seen last year. When inferior teams used to jump on them, we'd see that it was difficult for them to recover and it would often lead to a disappointing ending. Even with the lack of focus in the 1st half on the offensive end that the Wizards showed so often against inferior teams in the past, they did not let that deter them from turning it around eventually. This was the 2014-2015 Wizards. A resilient, smart team that did not get phased by the fact that a younger, hungry team was going after them.
The Wizards' defensive play rising above the Jazz' also helped them seal their fourth win in a row, as it helped the Wizards stay close enough for the offense to eventually find itself and make a run. The Wizards did not play down to their competition in the 2nd half, and Bradley Beal recognized the importance of not losing focus against inferior teams: "We should never have a mental lapse like that, or lack of energy so to speak, so I am not going to use that as an excuse. We have to be ready each and every game, because we are one of the top teams in the East and people are going to come after us, so we have to have that chip on our shoulder to feel as though we still have not accomplished anything. We still have a lot to prove, and at the same time, knowing that we have a huge target on our backs."
Now that the Wizards are a top team in the East, the younger, scrappy teams are going to make sure they give the Wizards all sorts of trouble. But they've been on the other side before, giving them an advantage as the season carries on.
"Well those young teams like them - Atlanta, Orlando, Milwaukee, Boston - those types of teams, they play hard no matter if they are down 20 or up 20. They're going to keep competing and playing hard. Most young teams don't do that but they do that so we knew when we had the lead we couldn't get comfortable. They are kind of in the same position we were in a couple of years ago. When we would play against a good team we would want to beat them and get that recognition, so we understand what teams are going to come after us with," Wall said Sunday.
Judging by their season so far, it's clear that the Wizards have understood that teams would come after them. But the Wizards also now know they are the superior team in many of these games. Even when the Jazz made a late run Sunday to cut the lead to six, there was a sense that the Wizards had this game in their hands, and weren't going to let the lead slip away. This kind of play has been there all season, as the Wizards are now 13-2 against teams below .500. After years of painful rebuilding and frustrating mediocrity, it's a breath of fresh air seeing the team win games like this. One of the signs of a truly elite team is beating teams their supposed to beat, and after years of struggling with this, the Wizards are turning the corner, and may be on the path to a... dare I say it? Contender.