TORONTO -- After a 105-96 win over the Raptors in Toronto on Wednesday, it was all smiles and jokes in the Washington locker room. Marcin Gortat could only laugh at one sequence during the game when John Wall fired a one-handed pass that hit the Wizards center directly in the face, causing him to crumble to the floor.
"It was bad. It was bad," Gortat said, laughing and shaking his head. "He tried to break my small nose."
A night before, the Wizards had beaten the Warriors at home, and now, they had just snapped an eight-game regular-season losing streak against the Raptors, moving ahead of them in standings for the third seed in the East. After a 2-8 start to the season, the Wizards have gone 34-15 since.
In 2009 when Scott Brooks got his first head coaching opportunity with Oklahoma City, he took over a young Thunder team that went 22-47 in his first season at the helm, before turning into perennial contenders with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook leading the way. In Washington, Brooks inherited a team this season that was coming off a 41-41 season in which they missed the playoffs after back-to-back second-round appearances, and failed to land a meeting with Durant in free agency, after a lot of speculation that he might decide to come home.
"I would have preferred immediate success [here]," Brooks said on Wednesday. Expectations were low after a slow start to the season, but the backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal have led the way since. Wall is averaging a career high 22.5 points and 10.9 assists this season. Beal, who has played in more than 65 games just once in his four year career, has appeared in 55 games this season, and is averaging a career high 22.6 points. Gortat and forwards Markieff Morris and Otto Porter are all averaging double digits in scoring. Per NBA.com, the Wizards' starting lineup is outscoring opponents by 13 points per 100 possessions this season.
And now, the Wizards are bolstering their bench for a playoff run. At the trade deadline, the team acquired sharpshooter Bojan Bogdanovic from the Brooklyn Nets. This week, the team agreed to a deal with Brandon Jennings, who was recently waived by the New York Knicks. And Bogdanovic has paid dividends already. Against the Raptors on Wednesday, Bogdanovic scored 27 points and made six three-pointers, keying a 26-1 run in a five minute stretch in the second quarter.
"When you play with great players, it's pretty easy," Bogdanovic said after the game.
"We have players that started in this league who are coming off the bench now," Brooks added.
The Wizards are no longer a team that relies on Wall and Beal, and they have the depth to compete with the best teams in the East. Brooks preaches a professional approach and wants his team to move the basketball and maximize each possession. Wednesday's game against Toronto was a great example, as the Wizards had a season-high 32 assists. "We move the ball very well," Wall said. "You never know who's going to be our leading scorer. Finding a way to win against playoff teams on the road is good for us."
After failing to land a superstar in free agency this summer, there were questions as to whether Wall, 26, and Beal, 23, could be centerpieces to a contending team. Despite his injury history, the Wizards signed Beal to a five-year, $130 million deal this summer. Wall, Gortat and Morris are signed through the 2018-19 season. Washington committed to this core group, a new head coach, and have watched those moves pay off this season.
Now, the Wizards are setting their sights on bigger things. This franchise has not made the Eastern Conference Finals since 1979, when they were the Washington Bullets. The 37-year drought is the second longest in the league. With 23 games left in the regular season, Washington knows securing a top-three seed would ensure them the best shot at ending their drought. "We're definitely focused on where we want to be at the end," Beal said about the team's playoff seeding goals.
For Brooks, who continues to preach day-to-day improvement, trusting his backcourt to lead the way with a team that's much deeper now than before the trade deadline means the Wizards could be set up to make a deep playoff run. "We have good players," Brooks said. "Sooner or later, players are going to continue and get better and we are going to come together as a team. Everybody deserves credit. Nobody is trying to get all the shine. Everybody is sharing. That's what good teams do."