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Washington Wizards v Atlanta Hawks - Game Six Photo by Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images

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The Wizards are the East’s most confounding team

Markieff Morris is back and the team feels confident it can turn it on when it needs to. Can it?

On Nov. 5th, 2017, Markieff Morris was posted up inside a corner cubby of the Toronto Raptors’ away locker room, his knees covered in ice, his feet dipped into an ice bucket.

In his second game back following a sports hernia injury, which left him on the sideline for six weeks including training camp and the preseason, Morris went 2-8 from the field, mustering just 10 points. John Wall, mending a shoulder injury, spent the game in sweatpants. Despite that, behind a torrent of threes from Bradley Beal, the Wizards beat the Raptors, 107-96.

On Sunday, the Wizards were in a similar spot, facing off against the Raptors, again without Wall. After the game, Morris sat in the same enclave, but the ice packs were gone. He played a much stronger game defensively, but he was cold again, going 1-10 from the floor. The Wizards couldn't come away with a victory.

There's no shame in losing when your best player is out of the mix. But it was more so the way the Wizards lost that was troubling, coming up empty on effort plays that have been the hallmark of losses that should have been wins. Despite getting a career-high seven assists from Marcin Gortat and 29 points from their generally putrid bench, the Wizards squandered away their opportunity by getting destroyed in the paint, to the tune of 50 points, and letting Toronto's shooters get loose in the fourth quarter.

The Wizards are an utterly confounding team. They can make quick work of an Eastern Conference rival without their best player, yet fall to the lowly Lakers after talking heaps of trash. They were an unconscious Kelly Olynyk game away from making the Eastern Conference Finals last year, and they've made serious internal improvements this season. Bradley Beal, with his devastating jumper and burgeoning playmaking abilities, looks like the perfect secondary star to pair with Wall. Otto Porter is living up to the maximum extension he signed last season. Kelly Oubre has developed into a fiery 3-and-D wing. They possess the requisite bodies, firepower, and spacing to throw at LeBron James. Before the season began, they looked primed to build on that improvement and become a real challenger to the Cavaliers in the conference.

Yet it is the Boston Celtics who have emerged from the Eastern Conference fray, capping off a recent 16-game winning streak with wins against the Thunder and Warriors.

The Wizards are, in so many ways, an embodiment of Morris. Flashes of brilliance, occasional lapses of judgment and effort. He is the team's heart and soul, its standard-bearer for toughness, who occasionally runs back lazily on defense and closes out halfway.

Last season, he cultivated the take-no-prisoners Death Row DC identity that re-energized their campaign, turning them from a team of talented, fledgling parts into the unified group that entered the TD Garden wearing all black (for, you know, the Celtics' funeral).

"I'm still one of the leaders on this team, " said Morris. "I just make sure that I'm heard everyday."

But this season, the outward displays of that identity haven't been accompanied by the results. This is the team that talks trash but backs up on an inconsistent basis, with the gifts and consequences of recklessness, playing out on a nightly basis. A team with this much talent shouldn't be trafficking in so much volatility.

If there ever was a metaphor for the Wizards: They feature the only guy in the league who would wind up for a swing against the opposition, only to clock his own team’s best player.

Miami Heat v Washington Wizards Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

The Wizards, for what it’s worth, don't seem to believe they need to operate with a sense of urgency.

"There's a lot of teams that wouldn't mind being 9-7 right now," said head coach Scott Brooks, after the loss to the Raptors. "We know we could have played better to start the season. But it's nothing that I'm disappointed in.”

Morris, on the other hand, insisted there was no reason to panic. Maybe they are onto something. The Wizards have consistently played better in the playoffs than their regular-season record would suggest, and there's no reason to sound the alarm in November. But this is also the same team (with a different coach, it should be said) that has let injuries and inconsistencies snowball into a missed playoff berth. That's likely off the books for this season, but the point is this: Things can get out of control here (they have before) and quickly.

There’s also a compelling argument that teams who haven't won championships shouldn't be operating as though they can flip a switch in the playoffs. The Wizards haven't worked through their wrinkles, and meaningful flaws are hard to diagnose when a team is willfully operating below full capacity. Which problems are a matter of flipping the switch, and what really needs fine-tuning?

Last season, Washington's deficiencies came down to modernity and poor bench play.

A healthy Morris, as ever, could be the key — a testament to how little things can have major impacts. A variation of the starting lineup that replaces Marcin Gortat with Kelly Oubre, and shifts Morris to the five, could turn the tables on almost any lineup, and force the opposition to adjust to them. With Wall, Beal, Oubre, Porter, and Morris together, Wall could pick defenses apart in a spread pick-and-roll offense that, operated correctly, would force defenses at best to give up an open three for Oubre.

"Definitely," Brooks said, "we will go more to that. We have to monitor his minutes. When we have our team locked in and Otto at the four, [Morris] at the five, we can be pretty hard to stop offensively."

Washington Wizards v Boston Celtics - Game Seven Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Defensively, they could go plenty of directions, opting to switch every pick-and-roll that doesn't leave Wall stuck on a big man. With plenty of height and athleticism on the perimeter, they could also try to trap and create deflections, while Morris could keep track of stretchy big men who give Gortat trouble.

"I played the five a lot earlier in my career at Phoenix, so it's something that I'm used to," agreed Morris. "It's not foreign to me."

Shifting Morris to the five for beats would also, Brooks willing, eat into Ian Mahinmi's minutes. (Mahinmi, AKA the scourge of the second unit.) There is also the possibility of bringing Morris off the bench permanently, where he is a superior creator to Oubre. For all of Oubre's improvements, he is outstretched on the second unit. Prior to Morris's return, the starting lineup with Oubre outscored opponents by a staggering 22.5 points per 100 possessions.

But all of these considerations remain secondary as the Wizards struggle to compile a record that could vie for home court in the East. Whether it's behind the massive chip on John Wall’s shoulder, Death Row DC, or some other ode to toughness, the Wizards have never been able to internalize any motto for a sustained period of time. Let's hope, for their sake, that they don’t internalize complacency either.

Sideline Story:

Take a brief moment to appreciate Stephen Curry maintaining his dribble while slipping all over the court.

The first time I witnessed Curry do this was in the preseason of his historic second MVP season. I was mesmerized, at a time when I had no clue just how often Curry would leave me just as gobsmacked all season.

It happened again in the Warriors’ brutal blowout loss to the Thunder.

There are probably more important things to discuss from this game, but I'm lost on this. How the hell did he maintain his dribble?

The addition of Kevin Durant to the Warriors somewhat put an end to the Curry we fell in love with: the virtuoso who would expand the game by some magic trick or another, be it his jumper or a ridiculous dribble move, on a nightly basis. It's not so much that he's declined but that in the Warriors' new framework, his responsibilities — along with his freedoms — have shifted. In the past, the ball was his and his only. He had the room to put away a victory, produce within the offense and put on a show every night. Now, his game is about nuts and bolts. He is not in the right flow for artistic inevitability.

But I love when moments like this happen. No, it's not the same as when he casually hit a 40-foot game-winner in that building so many years ago. But while the best about Curry's run at that moment was how unstoppable he felt, the magic was in those small, incredible feats that showed off a level — a mastery, really — of every basketball skill imaginable, honed and at his command in a way that nobody had ever witnessed before.


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