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A year after missing the playoffs, the Wizards are fighting for a top spot in the East

A year after missing the playoffs, the Wizards are fighting for a top spot in the East
Wizards point guard John Wall drives past Clippers point guard Chris Paul during a game earlier this season (Patrick Smith / Getty Images) (Patrick Smith / Getty Images)

Since Washington won its only championship on tape-delayed broadcasts in 1978, the franchise veered from the look of that era as much as NBA shorts and offenses.

In location, Washington moved from a suburb to the district.

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In name, the franchise changed from Bullets to Wizards.

In success, it has not posted a 50-win season since 1979.

The latter could change for Washington this season, thanks to recent changes in a star backcourt's chemistry, coaching and depth.

A year after coming up short of the playoffs, the Wizards are jockeying for a high playoff seeding. Washington could land from No. 2 to No. 4 for the Eastern Conference playoffs in a season that the Wizards opened with eight losses in their first 10 games and had a 9-14 record by Dec. 13.

Nobody recalls when their season flipped but the players know how it did.

Publicly mild-mannered Coach Scott Brooks, in his first season with Washington after seven years at Oklahoma City's helm, turned as hot-tempered as a bull with a matador in front of him.

"That's always the best halftime motivator — the bench," said Brooks, who implored players to defend.

By record, Brooks has succeeded slightly more this season with John Wall and Bradley Beal as his stars than he did with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook last season. A pair of 23-point scorers in Washington has the help of unmatched balance in the starting unit and recent upgrades to a lagging bench.

No other NBA starting lineup has scored in double digits across the board in more games than the Wizards team that visits the Lakers on Tuesday night.

Brooks never fretted over offense. He sought to create a better atmosphere and improve the defense. But in November and for part of December, Washington was not defending … "at all," Beal said.

"I can't tell you exactly what he said about it," Beal said. "There were definitely a choice amount of words. We respected him for it and we're giving him results as a result."

The Wizards still occasionally regress on defense and revert to leaning on offense. But since mid-December, Washington enjoyed a 17-game home winning streak, found winning therapy for the Wall-Beal court dynamic, zoomed past .500 in mid-January and made area fans wonder, "What in the name of Elvin Hayes is going on?"

"I'm not saying this in an arrogant way, but I wasn't focused on wins," Brooks said. "I was focused on how we want to play.

"When you have a point guard [Wall] who likes to make his team feel good about its play with his passing, you have a chance. He's scoring 23 points a game but he's making everybody feel a part of the offense."

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Only Houston's James Harden averages more assists than Wall, who scores and creates more than 48 points per game with his unique mix of size and speed.

Beal's jump shot was green-lighted once Brooks challenged him to attempt 20 three-pointers per game. As he starts a $150-million contract at age 23, Beal is enjoying career-best performance and health.

The Wizards' climb in the standings has said more for the advancement of Beal, the early-season progress of swingman Otto Porter Jr. and the double-double average of center Marcin Gortat.

"We knew we weren't the team we were playing like," Beal said. "It really took coach just one meeting. He drilled it into us that we're going to score but it was just a matter of us getting stops, especially down the stretch. We had to look ourselves in the mirror individually and accept the challenge."

The early season was mired in the nuances of a coaching transition and the muck left from a 2015-16 season of disappointing play and devastating injuries.

The Wizards became a high-scoring, strong-shooting team with the capability to spread four shooters around Wall, especially after acquiring Bojan Bogdanovic last month to bolster a lagging bench. The defense can be a nuisance, forcing almost 16 turnovers a game.

"It took a while, but we always had the talent," Wizards power forward Markieff Morris said. "We just had to get it together. Sometimes, we revert back to when we weren't so much of a good team but, for the most part, we're taking care of business."

A road-weary March has slowed Washington's drive toward 50 wins.

"We have to do a better job of getting back to the team we were before the [All-Star] break, guarding everybody, defending our tails off and getting out on the break and scoring," Beal said.

The Wizards already passed last season's win total more than a week ago and are trying to secure a top-three seed, which would avoid a Cleveland matchup until the conference finals. Boston currently has a lead and the tiebreaker for the No. 2 seed.

"Coming into the season, I really didn't know what to expect," Brooks said. "I had high expectations on building a team environment and a culture that breeds team, but you never really know if you're going to get buy-in. You can have the greatest game plan and the greatest stuff, but you're not going to have success if you don't have players who are committed to it.

"I knew we had a chance because our best players — Brad and John — have high character and want to win. As the evolution of this season has gone on, I've seen that."

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