|Suns, Wizards eager to prove they belong|
The last two teams to earn invitations into the NBA bubble -- the Phoenix Suns and Washington Wizards -- get an opportunity to demonstrate that they belong when they square off Friday afternoon in the league's restart near Orlando.
Each begins its eight-game sprint to the end of the regular season in the "Race for No. 8" in its respective conference, with the Suns (26-39) six back of Memphis (32-33) in the Western Conference, and the Wizards (24-40) 5 1/2 behind Orlando (30-35) in the East.
Neither has to make up the entire deficit in order to stay alive. Any team within four games of the No. 8 spot at the end of the regular season will earn a spot in the newly created play-in tournament.
The Wizards begin play just 1 1/2 games outside that four-game window, but do so without nearly 40 percent of their 2020 offense with Bradley Beal (30.5 points per game) sidelined by a sore shoulder and Davis Bertans (15.4) having opted out of the restart to prevent reinjuring his surgically repaired knees on the eve of free agency.
Washington also remains without John Wall, who has sat out the entire season while rehabbing a ruptured Achilles.
To add insult to injury, the Wizards drew the third-hardest schedule among the nine teams still playing in the East, with a .578 cumulative record of remaining opponents.
No doubt, the Wizards have their eye on Brooklyn (30-34), which returns to the court in the seventh position in the East, six games ahead of Washington. The Nets are in arguably worse shape physically than the Wizards, with Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Spencer Dinwiddie, among others, all ruled out for the rest of the season.
The Wizards play the Nets on Sunday.
The Wizards are now led by rookie forward Rui Hachimura, who had 18 points in a scrimmage against Denver last week.
"I'm really pleased with how he came back," Wizards coach Scott Brooks gushed during the lead-up to Friday's game. "You can just see that he has a really good feel for the game."
The Suns, meanwhile, face the unenviable task of moving up in the West without getting a shot at any of the five teams immediately ahead of them (Memphis, Portland, New Orleans, Sacramento, San Antonio). They will face the fifth-hardest schedule in the West, with their remaining opponents having played at a cumulative .589 clip before the break.
Phoenix also begins bubble play at less than full speed.
Aron Baynes, who was last seen playing a complementary role to fellow big man Deandre Ayton, remains questionable for the game as he attempts to get clearance after a positive coronavirus test. Kelly Oubre Jr. might have to sit out all remaining games as he deals with a right knee injury suffered in February, while Dario Saric sprained his right ankle in a scrimmage last week and remains iffy.
On a positive note, Ayton says he's healthy, has added 3-point range to his repertoire and feels right at home at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex.
"I already know Orlando. I know the gym we're going to play in. It's just going to take me back to AAU season," insisted Ayton, who played on the Under Armour circuit as a Southern California youth standout. "I feel like we're playing for the semifinals of Peach Jam."
The clubs played once before the break, with the Wizards winning a 140-132 shootout in Phoenix on Nov. 27.
Beal (35) and Bertans (16) combined for eight 3-pointers and 51 points in the win. Devin Booker had a team-high 27 for the Suns, who were without both Ayton and Baynes.
--Field Level Media