- The Washington Times
Thursday, April 29, 2021

If they didn’t occur in the same game, Rui Hachimura, Daniel Gafford and Chandler Hutchinson each would have had the best dunk of the night. In Wednesday’s win over the Los Angeles Lakers, Hachimura posterized Anthony Davis. Gafford laid out Kyle Kuzma. And Hutchinson practically jumped over Talen Horton-Tucker.

But the dunk that arguably caused the most movement on the Wizards’ bench, the slam that prompted players to rush onto the court once timeout was called, was none other than Ish Smith, a 5-foot-11 point guard who leaped up and attacked the rim on a breakaway.

It was Smith’s first dunk since the 2017-18 season.

“It was crazy because in the first half, I was talking to somebody, asking if Ish can dunk,” Hachimura said. “And he did it in the second half.”

The onslaught of highlight-worthy dunks was the latest thing to go right for the Wizards, who put on a show in their first nationally-televised game in two years. Washington has now won 11 of its last 13 — rocketing up the standings in the process. 

With 10 games left, the Wizards (28-34) hold a two-game lead over the Toronto Raptors (26-36) and Chicago Bulls (26-36) for the last spot in the NBA’s upcoming play-in tournament. That puts Washington in control of the race, especially given that the Wizards have the easiest remaining schedule of the Bulls, Raptors, and even the Indiana Pacers, the team a game-and-a-half in front of them for ninth.

According to Tankathon.com, the combined winning percentage of the teams remaining on Washington’s schedule is just .479 — the 10th weakest slate left. While seven of those contests come on the road — including a five-game road trip — only three of the seven teams are over .500. 

Things appear to be breaking the right way for the Wizards. 

“The vibe changed because we’ve been winning,” center Alex Len said. “It’s a lot more fun. … We just feed off that energy. Guys are playing a little harder. The opportunity is there for us to make the playoffs. So everybody’s just giving everything they have. They understand what’s at stake.” 

If Washington’s finishes 10th, it would have to win the play-in tournament to make the playoffs. Under the new format, the Wizards’ first game would be against the ninth seed, currently the Pacers. And if Washington wins, the team faces the loser of the No. 7 vs. No. 8 matchup — currently the Boston Celtics (No. 7) and the Charlotte Hornets (No. 8) — in a do-or-die game for the eighth seed.

Entering Thursday’s games, the Wizards were two games back of the Hornets for the eighth spot. If the Wizards finish in eighth, they could theoretically become the seventh seed if they win their first matchup in the play-in tournament. If they lose, they would have to face the winner to the No. 9 vs. No. 10 matchup.

The fact that even Washington is in this position is surprising given all that the team endured in the early part of the season. The issues are well known by now: The three-week COVID-19 pause. The injuries. The inconsistent play. 

But the Wizards have insisted that adversity resulted in the team coming together. Coach Scott Brooks is still tinkering with lineups — his latest move was to give Hutchinson, a trade deadline pickup from Chicago, a chance in the rotation — but the Wizards have found a rhythm on the floor. 

The Wizards are getting star performances from Bradley Beal and Russell Westbrook and the two have meshed well to carry the offense. Beal again leads the league in scoring with 31.3 points per game, surpassing Golden State’s Steph Curry. Westbrook is also just five triple-doubles away from tying Oscar Robertson’s all-time mark of 181. 

The team’s role players, however, have also played well. Against a Lakers team without LeBron James, Washington dominated stretches of the game in part because Len and Washington’s other centers took away the paint. 

And when Los Angeles made a run in the fourth to cut the Wizards’ 18-point lead to single digits, the Wizards responded with a flurry to put the game out of reach. 

“We’ve started playing together more,” Hachimura said. “Every game is very important for us right now. We’ve got to win and get into the playoffs.”

Brooks said he thought Wednesday’s contest carried a playoff-like atmosphere. He was glad to see the Wizards match the intensity. 

“We’ve been through a lot this year,” Brooks said. “And there’s no reason for us to relax now and take a deep breath. We’ve got some more in us. We’re going to just keep fighting.”

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