- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 31, 2021

Bradley Beal often tells his new teammates about the opportunity they have to make a mark on the Washington Wizards franchise. 

Only six games into this season, the Wizards, who underwent a remake this summer by acquiring five players via trade, have taken a small step toward that ultimate goal. 

With its 115-112 win over the Celtics in double overtime Saturday, Washington improved to 5-1 for the first time since the 2005-06 season. 

“It feels amazing man,” Beal said after the win. “I tell these guys all the time that they can be a part of a lot of history over here, just from the way we’ve been doing things to the opportunities we can create and mold our culture into. We always talk about what a culture is, and I always emphasize this at the beginning of the year — it’s what we make it.”

The 5-1 start is only the third for the franchise since the NBA-ABA merger in 1976, with the other being in 1989-90. The Wizards are tied for first in the Eastern Conference with the Knicks, Heat and Bulls. 

“It means a lot just even seeing the fans involved, getting everybody excited for Wizards basketball again,” said Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who had a crucial block in the final seconds of the win Saturday.

The 2005-06 Wizards team was in the middle of Eddie Jordan’s tenure as head coach and was led by the core of Gilbert Arenas, Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison. Arenas had his best season that year, averaging 29.3 points per game. 

But the thread between that team and this year’s Wizards squad is Wes Unseld Jr. 

Unseld, who is in his first season as Washington’s head coach this year, was a rookie assistant for Washington in 2005-06. 

“That’s actually a stat I didn’t know,” Unseld said. “It’s great. Hopefully there are a lot of firsts this year, there are certainly a lot of firsts for me.”

“I’m definitely happy for Coach,” Beal said. “He’s been a part of this league for 20-plus years, and he’s finally getting his first crack at being a head coach. I tip my hat off to him for all his hard work and dedication, being a part of this game and creating his own lane outside of his dad.”

The buzzword after the win over the Celtics was “resilience.” Unseld, Beal and Caldwell-Pope all used the word following an exciting, but ugly, win. 

The Wizards led for the vast majority of regulation but made several mistakes that took the game to overtime and shot only 36.5% from the field. Unseld said the victory was a “character win.”

“It wasn’t pretty, believe me it wasn’t, but we found a way,” Unseld said. “It’s a credit to our guys. They believe, they trust and they leave it on the line.”

The Celtics took a 6-point lead two minutes into the first overtime period before the Wizards went on a 12-3 run in the final eight minutes of overtime to earn the victory. 

“It says a lot about us,” Caldwell-Pope said of the win. “We know we’re going to fight to the end no matter what. Like coach said, no matter how ugly the win is, we got the win.”

The most welcome part of the new-look Wizards is their defense, an aspect of Scott Brooks’ teams that was well below average during his tenure. In Brooks’ five seasons, the Wizards were 20th, 15th, 27th, 29th and 20th in defensive rating. 

So far this season, Unseld’s squad is top 10 in defensive rating, blocks per game, defensive rebound-rate and opponent 3-point percentage. Washington is allowing only a 27.9% 3-point percentage — third best in the NBA — after holding the Celtics to 2 of 26 from long range Saturday. The Wizards were one of the worst teams at defending 3-pointers two years ago and were average last season. 

“We trust our defense. That’s the reason we’re 5-1. We’ve shot the ball like crap the first six games, and our defense is what’s literally winning us these games,” said Beal, referencing the offense’s 18th-ranked 44% field-goal percentage.

Montrezl Harrell, one of the three players Washington acquired this summer from the Lakers in the Russell Westbrook trade, has been a high-energy player for the Wizards, averaging 19.3 points and 10.2 rebounds in 31.5 minutes per game — all of which would be career highs. He said the success on defense goes back to training camp. 

“Coach gave us the defensive scheme, and there were times where we felt like it wasn’t going to work or be the scheme that worked for us as a group,” Harrell said. “But it was all about buying in and doing it a little bit harder. Once we did that in training camp, we saw how it resonated over into the game.”

While the 5-1 start is exciting, the 2005-06 season can serve as a good lesson — or a bad omen. After opening 5-1, the Arenas-led Wizards then lost their next five games.

November will challenge Unseld’s squad, as the Wizards play nine of their 15 games on the road. December won’t be any easier, with a challenging stretch of games against at Utah, Denver and Phoenix — the top three teams in the Western Conference last season — before coming back east to play at Brooklyn, this season’s odds-on-favorite to win the NBA championship.

“It’s amazing to be where we are, but we have that humble and hungry mentality that we haven’t scratched the surface yet,” Beal said. “We still have a lot to improve and be better at.”

• Jacob Calvin Meyer can be reached at jmeyer@washingtontimes.com.

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