The Wizards week was the definition of a roller coaster ride: There were extreme highs, such as victories over Cleveland, Charlotte, Houston, Orlando and OKC. Then, there were lows, twists and gut-wrenching stretches such as two losses to Chicago, with one of them coming on an impossible buzzer beater from DeMar DeRozan.
The Wizards started off the week strong with a 110–93 win against the Cavaliers in what may have been their best win in a month. Bradley Beal and Kyle Kuzma combined for 54 points, and both players had double doubles. The eight-man rotation designed by Wes Unseld Jr. was used to perfection, as Washington was able to overcome the absences of Spencer Dinwiddie and Montrezl Harrell.
“Behind every beautiful thing, there’s some kind of pain,” said Bob Dylan. Dylan’s words could not have applied any more perfectly to Washington’s first contest with Chicago. The Wizards had a lead all game against the league’s hottest team, but despite another outstanding effort from Beal and Kuzma, the Wizards just couldn’t pull away. With under a minute left, Chicago took their first lead of the game since the first quarter. However, Kuzma struck again, nailing a three with under eight seconds left to give the Wizards the lead and Beal his 17th assist of the night. Unfortunately for Washington, the game-winner was yet to come. On a play that seemed swallowed up by Corey Kispert and Bradley Beal, DeRozan hit his second consecutive buzzer beater game-winning three on a heavily contested corner three. After pump faking Kispert and hitting a double-clutch bomb over the outstretched arm of Beal, the vibes in the Disrict were temporarily bashed.
Thankfully, the positive energy would return in their next game against Charlotte. For the third game in a row, it was the Beal and Kuzma show, and it was enough to elevate Washington over the Hornets. The two combined for 71 points, as both players took on substantial roles and minutes in the Wizards shorthanded, seven man rotation. Kuzma hit four threes in the fourth quarter to help the Wizards overcome a 14 point deficit and stay above .500.
Going against the young and unpredictable Houston Rockets, Washington, despite falling down early in the second half, kept the game competitive. The Rockets could never pull away, and a Raul Neto layup with 22 seconds left in regulation tied the game. In true Wizards fashion, a game winning three at home was not in Washington’s favor. Kevin Porter Jr hit a nasty step back three at the buzzer to hand the Wizards another devastating loss.
The Chicago Bulls or the Washington Wizards father? In a game where Washington yet again couldn’t shoot the three, the Wizards still managed to take the lead in the third quarter. After taking an 85-84 lead, the Bulls outscored them 40–20 and put the game away halfway through the fourth. Washington’s eight-point loss didn’t truly show how atrocious the Wizards played in the second half.
In the highly anticipated return of Rui Hachimura, Washington won a nail-biter in Orlando. Kuzma’s stellar performance featured 27 points and a career high 22 rebounds. Despite a disappointing first game back from Hachimura and an all-around poor-performance from the bench, Washington earned a quality win, even if it was against the struggling Magic. With the return of Montrezl Harrell the following game against the Thunder, Washington finally has a solid bench, which was a huge part of Washington’s success early on this season.
After a close game against the Magic, Washington had to overcome being without Beal against the Thunder. Luckily for Washington, Kuzma was in his bag again. No team could grasp onto a double digit lead, but a great three point performance by Davis Bertans and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope kept the Wizards in striking distance. After the game was knotted up at 114 a piece with three minutes left, KCP and Kuzma scored the Wizards final eight points, which was enough to earn a 122-118 victory.
Here are three takeaways from a crazy week for the Wizards:
Bradley Beal and Kyle Kuzma’s usage must stay consistent
The Wizards have learned a lot about themselves, as poor play and Covid humbled their improbable start. What these struggles did teach Washington, however, is that Beal and Kuzma are the two best players on this team. Even though Beal got off to a rough start this season, it was just a matter of time until something clicked, which was teammate Spencer Dinwiddie testing positive for Covid on December 30th. Since then, Beal’s usage has skyrocketed, as well as his points, assists and efficiency. Dinwiddie’s absence means Beal becomes the sole playmaker in the backcourt, and that is when he is most effective. When running the point, Beal utilizes his ability as one of the best scorers in the league as well as his underrated passing and playmaking to dismantle opposing defenses. During Dinwiddie’s four game absence, Beal averaged 28.8 points per game and 9.2 assists per game, including the aforementioned career high of 17 assists against the Bulls. Dinwiddie may not need to be benched, but Beal must keep getting the opportunity to lead the offense. As for Kuzma, his breakout is very unexpected, but couldn’t have come at a better time. His last seven games are undoubtedly the best stretch of basketball he’s played in his career. He’s averaged 26.6 points per game and 11.3 rebounds per game, as well as 53.6% shooting from the field. Even though that number is likely unsustainable, it is evident that Kuzma has earned his role.
Montrezl Harrell is Washington’s most underrated player
Harrell’s importance to this Washington team is indescribable. When analyzing the Wizards peak of success, Harrell was the Wizards’ best player. It’s still a mystery to me why his playing time and usage didn’t expand upon his excellent bench play. It’s also abundantly clear how crucial he was to the bench. In his seven game Covid-induced absence, Washington’s bench was reminiscent of last year, shallow and unreliable. Even though the bench plus-minus was fairly close to zero, the lack of depth made the Wizards rely on too much playing time from the starting lineup. Harrell’s presence was felt in his first game back, as he scored 12 points and grabbed 7 rebounds. While he didn’t necessarily stuff the stat sheet, his energy helped lift the Wizards over the Thunder on Tuesday night.
Spencer Dinwiddie is last year’s Russell Westbrook
Even though Dinwiddie isn’t quite as dominant as Westbrook, the two stars have similar roles and impacts on the Wizards. When they play well, the Wizards are nearly unstoppable. On their bad nights, however, they make you want to rip your hair out. Even though this analogy seems disrespectful to Westbrook, many fans only remember the best moments of Russ. What they forget are all of the 4-15 games with 5 turnovers. Both players are very streaky, and hopefully like Westbrook last year, Dinwiddie gets hot mid-season and continues to shine for the rest of the season.
Hot Take: Washington is still a top eight team in the East, maybe even top six
Even though Washington’s start was too good to be true, it is inevitable that they have endured a crucifying amount of Covid problems. At full strength this year, Washington was one of the best teams in the East. It is undeniable that they don’t have the same type of roster talent as the Bulls, Nets, Heat, Bucks or 76ers, but they are just as talented as any other team in the East. I’d also argue at their best, they are better than any other conference opponent.