I’d like to know which visionary soul out there had the Washington Wizards as the second team to be through to Round 2 of the NBA Playoffs. Or even who displayed enough clairvoyance to peg Washington as a victor over the media darling Chicago Bulls in any number of games. Chances are, the people I’m looking for are far and few between (though, shout outs are warranted to Bill Simmons, Charles Barkley, and myself). After the majority of league experts predicted Chicago to advance and face off vs. the Indiana Pacers in a playoff series that may have violated the Eighth Amendment, it was the Wizards who dispatched a gritty but ultimately talent-drained Bulls team in 5 games and now head into the Eastern Conference semifinals with a surge of confidence and nearly a week of time to recover and refocus.
The Wizards and their fans are going to have an undeniably difficult time coping with and accepting success, especially in a fashion as simple as this. After all, the team scored just its second playoff victory since 1982 and achieved basic milestones like ‘going up 2-0 in a series’ and ‘winning 3 playoff games on the road’ for the first time since Alexander the Great was President of Basketball Operations. For a franchise that has suffered the level of ineptitude, incompetence, and irrelevance as this one, winning 4 out of 5 games against a favored opponent should not be taken lightly. It is a big deal and represents the first tangible evidence that the team is ready to remove itself from the cellar of the NBA and become a perennial playoff participant and on those fleeting occasions where the stars align, a threat to make a deep run. The fact that the run could happen in Year 1 of the post-rebuild phase is a bit of a modern day miracle. Up until the last few hours of the season, everything from 5th to the 7th seed was in play for Washington. And thanks to a few dominoes falling exactly as they should, the Wizards avoided the two-time defending champ Miami Heat and the fan-crazed, upstart Toronto Raptors to fall into a bracket with Tom Thibodeau and his 5-man 48-minute per game rotation, the Lance Stephenson-Evan Turner led UFC league known as the Indiana Pacers, and the 36 win, NBA lottery hopeful Atlanta Hawks.
Nevertheless, the path was only as straight as the execution would allow. Washington did not play flawlessly for five straight games but finally made good on what was thought possible when the year started; that a team with this much talent could actually play to that level on a consistent basis without forgetting that they were just plain better.
From the opening tip of Game 1, the Wizards were not intimidated by the moment or their opponent and played with an aggression that indicated they were the ready to compete and win. False narratives aside, this was not a young or inexperienced roster that entered the postseason, which was a byproduct of the three-year long vision of Ernie Grunfeld and the front office staff. Although John Wall, Bradley Beal and Trevor Booker hadn’t experienced the playoffs before, every other contributor had been in that moment, ranging from years of first round knockouts (Andre Miller) to battles in NBA Finals (Trevor Ariza and Marcin Gortat). That veteran presence allowed Washington’s star young backcourt to get their feet wet and play within the system, rather than force the issue as the only means to victory. That depth allowed Washington to not have its full complement of players excelling at the same time, but rather a different set of heroes producing results each night. In Game 1, it was the wizardry (pun intended) of Nene vs. the alleged Defensive Player of the year Joakim Noah and the old-school tricks of Andre Miller that propelled Washington to victory. In Game 2, it was Beal’s coming out party with Nene and Wall providing background vocals. Game 4 had Ariza’s fingerprints all over it with Booker plugging in the gaps. And the closeout game last night fittingly had a bit of everything – Wall’s speed, Beal’s marksmanship, Nene’s physicality, Ariza’s defense, Gortat’s awareness, Booker’s hustle, and Porter’s towel waving.
All of this was of course capped off with a masterful performance all series by beleaguered head coach Randy Wittman. Wittman’s outcoaching of Thibs in Round 1 has to rank up there with the biggest surprises of Round 1, and directly impacted the result of this series. His rotations (the biggest gripe with his coaching style) were on point and his offensive sets (clear winner for 2nd least liked aspect) had the Bulls vaunted defense guessing and on their heels for five straight games.
So at this point it’s pretty evident that the superior team won out, but the question becomes two-fold. How was it done, and how can it be replicated in the next round? The easy assumption is to think the Wizards were just on fire for the duration of the series and the sustainability of that will be difficult. But the reality is that Washington didn’t really have an offensive explosion quite the way many might believe. Yes, the team’s offensive rating was a scorching 108.9 points per 100 possessions, but their effective FG% was a fairly pedestrian 47.9%. They only crossed the 100 point threshold twice (one of which was an overtime game) and averaged just 94.6 points per game. However, the advantage in offensive efficiency was found not as much in the collective shooting stroke as from the ancillary parts of the game. The Wizards were aggressive, early and often and got to the free throw line in bunches. They crashed the offensive glass to produce extra possessions after missed shots. And they protected the basketball, limiting turnovers against a team that relies on opponent miscues as a means of producing baskets. The positive for Washington is that these factors are easily replicable if the effort and energy are there. And with improved shooting accuracy from Wall, Gortat, and Booker (all had True Shooting % under 50%); the Wizards could take their well-oiled offensive machine into the next gear.
Defensively, Washington was outstanding all series. Of course, it did help that Chicago’s offense needed legitimate contributions from a Toronto cast-off (DJ Augustin), a certified role player (Jimmy Butler) and a former member of the NBA (Carlos Boozer) but regardless, Washington capitalized on those shortcomings rather than aiding them. Beal and Wall were a nightmare for the Bulls’ guards with their length and athleticism and Ariza was the hired gun who would be placed in front of any player with a seemingly hot hand (luckily for the Wizards, this didn’t happen to multiple people at once…ever). Nene and Gortat helped solidify the glass and although the Bulls did get their share of offensive rebounds, Washington’s rotations on defense and close outs of shooters was near perfect throughout. Again, the performance on this side of the ball should be expected vs. either Indiana or Atlanta. The Wizards matchup well because of versatile big men and long armed perimeter defenders and can take either team out of their comfort zone offensively (though we’re still waiting for the official statement from the Pacers on whether they actually have one or not).
It’s been an exhilarating experience thus far in the NBA playoffs, with a record eight overtime games in the first round. It’s also been a tumultuous ride thanks to the heinous comments made by Donald Sterling and his subsequent lifetime ban from league activities. Needless to say, it is a foreign yet highly satisfying feeling for the Washington team to not be involved in any stress regarding on the court results or off the court news. It should be noted that after all the attention the Wizards got for opening a 2-0 lead, the dismissal of the Bulls for good last night was equally as quiet. Maybe it says something that this was such a forgone conclusion that no debate was left to be made. That despite this series receiving nightly prime TV billing there was little drama left to be uncovered. I’m sure that’s fine with the Wizards though. Not being talked about because they won too easily is a hell of lot nicer feeling than the other way around. And if there’s any franchise who knows what the uglier side of that coin is, it’s this one.
See you in Round 2.