It's time to learn whether the Washington Wizards are real playoff contenders.
The All-Star break has come to an end, and the Wizards will host the Toronto Raptors (28-24) Feb. 18 and travel to the Atlanta Hawks (25-26) Feb. 19. It's a tough start to the final 30 games, but within 26 hours, Washington will quickly know whether it's a contender or pretender.
Guard Bradley Beal's statement that the team is working on seeding versus making the playoffs for the first time since 2008 is a little naive. The Wizards (25-27) are currently seeded sixth in the Eastern Conference. After losing four of six entering the break, Washington is only three games out of playoff scenarios and half a game out of seventh.
Teams don't want to finish seventh or eighth, because that would likely mean a first-round series versus Indiana (40-12) or Miami (37-14). Translation -- one and done.
But Washington is only three games back of third-seeded Toronto in the East, which is a 98-pound weakling compared with the Western Conference. A solid run during the next two months would give Washington a real chance to reach at least the conference semifinals before playing either of the two kingpins. For a franchise with one series win during the past three decades, advancing a couple of rounds would be like winning the title.
The key seems to be focus. The Wizards play well for a game or two, then bad for a game or two. They've bounced around .500 most of the season. It's time to get a few games above sea level and make a move for the third seed.
The good news is guard John Wall and Beal are finally gaining chemistry. It seems one of the pair has been often injured during Beal's two seasons, so they haven't played much together. But now, each is showing some feel for the other's game. Wall may average 10 assists per game soon the way he has been finding Beal recently.
And Beal is emerging from a shooting slump, because coach Randy Wittman has handled the team's psyche masterfully. Really, it has been an impressive job by Wittman massaging a moderately talented team into position to make a playoff run. But it comes down to not letting Beal go into a funk.
Beal is symbolic of the team's inconsistency. After scoring 37 points off 15-of-24 shooting against Memphis Feb. 11, he was 8-of-24 against Houston the next night. Beal hasn't converted more than 50 percent of his shots during consecutive games since mid-January.
Equally perplexing is Beal's lack of free throws. He made no attempts during three of his last four games and only two versus Memphis. Beal has no free throws during 17 games this season. Who does that?
Forward Trevor Ariza is exciting to watch. His 14.4 points-per-game average is five points more than his career mark. He has scored in double figures 11 of the last 13 games, including 32 versus Houston. Ariza has made it easy to overlook the fact that former Georgetown guard Otto Porter has done virtually nothing as a first-round pick, averaging 1.6 points during 23 games.
The Wizards have enough parts to make the playoffs. Now, can they turn the sum of those parts into something better? They have 30 games to find out.