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Inside the NBA: Wizards looked to take a step forward, but injuries could hold them back

Washington Wizards guard Bradley Beal reacts after hitting a shot against the Portland Trail Blazers on Tuesday. The team plays the Clippers on Saturday night.
Washington Wizards guard Bradley Beal reacts after hitting a shot against the Portland Trail Blazers on Tuesday. The team plays the Clippers on Saturday night.
(Steve Dykes / Associated Press)

The Washington Wizards might be happier with where they are if they subtracted the expectations from the reality.

With every core player returning from a 49-win team and an improved bench, the preseason expectation was for Washington to take a step forward to at least being an Eastern Conference Finals team and the franchise’s first 50-win team in 39 years.

Sitting in a tie for eighth place in the East at the season’s quarter pole did not inspire confidence toward the aspirations. But the reality of the situation might.

Because of Markieff Morris’ and John Wall’s injuries, the Wizards’ heralded starting lineup has played together in nine games this season. The .500 level is not the bar for Washington, but the Wizards have never dipped below it, an upgrade from last season’s 2-8 start.

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The Wizards won 40 of their final 59 games last season. If they do that again, they will finish with close to 55 wins this time.

“We’re not where we want to be, but we feel like we’re still in a good position,” Wizards guard Bradley Beal said. “Injuries have definitely hurt us but those things happen. It’s always the next man up. Everybody has to step up their game and their role as much as we can. We have the assets and the depth to do it with great GM decisions by Ernie [Grunfeld] to put depth at each position and have guys who play multiple positions.”

What makes Washington different from the company it currently keeps near the East’s playoff border is the combination of elite stars (Beal and Wall), starting lineup balance and a bench with more impact.

Wall and Beal already found their chemistry last season when they buried personal drives in favor of enjoying each other’s successes. The guards, in their sixth season together, each averaged 23.1 points with the team outscoring opponents by 6.2 points for every 100 possessions that Wall and Beal played together. The five-man starting unit outscored opponents by 8.1 points for every 100 possessions.

With Wall out until at least later this week after getting left knee treatment, Beal lifted the Wizards out of the muck of the franchise’s second-worst loss ever (116-69 at Utah) with a 51-point game the next night to win at Portland and a 34-point game Thursday night to win at Phoenix.

“I ain’t never, ever see you act like this before,” Wall said in taking over the on-court, postgame interview of Beal on NBC Sports Washington in Phoenix. “You getting bucket buckets.”

Overall, the results still have been as inconsistent as the defense. The Wizards have beat Detroit twice but also lost to Charlotte, Dallas and the Lakers.

The preseason debate about the Wizards was whether they would maintain or ascend. Sliding backward was not an option, and perhaps it would not appear that way if it was not for poor offensive execution late in games.

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In the final five minutes of games with a five-point margin or less, the Wizards had the NBA’s fifth-worst shooting percentage (34.0) entering Saturday night’s game at the Los Angeles Clippers.

“We lost games that we could’ve done a better job of closing out, myself included in that mix,” Washington coach Scott Brooks said. “I like where we are. John will be back soon. Hopefully, we can take off and play well.”

The Wizards are running at a slightly slower pace than last year, mostly attributable to not having the push of Wall in recent weeks. Washington is one of the NBA’s best fastbreak scoring teams by scoring off turnovers but gives up a high field goal percentage when they do not get a steal or force a mistake.

“I think we’re one of the best teams when we get a stop and run,” Brooks said. “When we think about getting stops and getting into transition, we’re hard to stop, especially when John does come back with his speed and his ability to attack the rim. I like the potential we have defensively. We’ve got guys who can guard multiple players and positions. We still have to be able to it night in and night out and we haven’t been able to get that going as well as we did last year.”

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The much-maligned Wizards bench of the past looks more like a formidable lineup with Tim Frazier (now starting in Wall’s absence), Jodie Meeks, Kelly Oubre Jr., Mike Scott, Ian Mahinmi and Tomas Satoransky (now the backup point guard in Wall’s absence).

In his third season, Oubre is fulfilling his 3-and-D potential. Oubre, who just turned 22 on Saturday, has nearly doubled his scoring average of last season, found a 3-point shooting touch, defended with his 7-foot-2 wingspan and crashed the boards well.

He gives Brooks a versatile late-game option to form a frontcourt of Oubre, Morris and Otto Porter Jr., who is showing why Washington was willing to give him an offseason maximum contract because of two-way play that makes him the team’s third star.

“We’ve got a lot of what we didn’t have last year,” Morris said. “We’re a lot better this year.

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“Our main priority is to be healthy late in the season and get a good seed in the playoffs. We know that once we’re healthy and we’ve got everybody, from one to 15 on the roster, we’re a tough team to beat.”

The Wizards’ season turned at this time last year. Monday’s embarrassment at Utah might have been the push to do it again this season.

If so, Washington can approach those preseason expectations, treat D.C. to its first 50-win season since the team went by “Bullets” and maybe face Cleveland in the playoffs for the first time in 10 years.

“We’ve got to do better at realizing we can play that way every night,” Beal said.

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sports@latimes.com


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