If you were told an NBA team went 3-0 on the road in their first round playoff series, and over the last two years have an 8-1 away record in the postseason, chances are you could not only name that squad but you’d also consider them a major championship contender. Stringing together road victories is often "make or break" for postseason success, and only a handful of teams are capable of doing so.
And yet that team is the Washington Wizards, and there is good reason for why they haven’t received much love during this year’s playoffs. It’s an organization that’s seen more than its fair share of disappointments and busts since it won its only NBA title back in 1978. Washington’s claimed a mere three first-round series since 2005, and endured nine early exits as far back as 1984.
But this year’s squad looks far different than previous flash-in-the-pan incarnations, and currently the Wizards own a 1-0 second-round series lead over an Atlanta Hawks squad that finished the regular season with a franchise-record 60 wins and the top seed in the Eastern Conference.
And that first win was, of course, on the road. Now the 104-98 triumph, highlighted by shooting guard Bradley Beal’s 28 points on a sprained right ankle, might lose some luster when you consider Atlanta only had two days rest after eliminating the Brooklyn Nets in their first-round series. However, the Hawks lost only six times at home throughout the regular season, and held home court advantage against Brooklyn.
No, the Wizards simply out-played, out-hustled, and were flat out better than Atlanta and could be poised for their first trip to the East Finals since 1979 for myriad reasons.
Washington’s ripped off five straight wins to start the postseason, a first in the team’s history, and much of the success belongs to its ability to alter its style of play since the postseason started three weeks ago.
The Wizards have mainly relied on the interior presences of power forward Nene and center Marcin Gortat, both of whom have a keen awareness of shooters like Beal and Paul Pierce or slashing point guard John Wall.
The Wizards have limited Nene’s role in the playoffs, with Wall, Beal and Pierce taking games over from the perimeter. The Brazilian big man, who was held scoreless in Game 1 against Atlanta, has no qualms.
“Our results speak for themselves. I’m not that kind of guy that like to talk about it,” Nene said to The Washington Post. “We work hard, we work together and take whatever the game give to you, and if we winning, we good.”
Beal has especially benefited from head coach Randy Wittman’s change up in the playbook, racking up a team-best 22.2 points and 1.4 steals in the playoffs.
The development of Wall, the No. 1 pick in the draft five years ago, can’t be understated either. Wall has acted as more of a distributor and playmaker, divvying up 12.6 assists per game, a sharp uptick from his 10 assists per contest in the regular season. Wall’s also notched 17.4 points and 1.4 blocks, and Pierce took noted of the two-time All-Star’s improvement.
"John has put his superstar cap on," Pierce said to USA Today. "I always say this is where the stars of the NBA become superstars — in the playoffs. This is where they're born, and that's what you're seeing with John Wall right now."
Pierce isn’t the only one who’s taken notice of Wall’s emergence. Washington swept a tough Toronto Raptors squad that included All-Star point guard Kyle Lowry, and Raptors head coach Dwayne Casey credited the lightning-quick Wall’s better understanding of his abilities to his rise to superstar status.
"The one thing John is doing a much better job of is changing speeds, but he's relentless. His speed coming at you after makes and misses was relentless," Casey also said to USA Today. "It didn't seem like he was ever going to get tired. His passing has improved so much and he's making the right decisions out of the double team and out of the traps and drawing in the paint and finding (players). He's grown from that standpoint."
Wall and Beal both were also recognized for the determination and heart they showed in Game 1 against Atlanta, with the former overcoming a left wrist injury in the second quarter and the latter enduring his ankle knock in the fourth. Each is still sore, but they’re expected to play in Game 2 Tuesday night at Philips Arena.
Though he’s been deflecting his own timeless game and performances to Wall’s rise, Pierce’s leadership and experience has worked wonders in the Wizards locker room and on the court. The 37-year-old former Boston Celtic and Net is averaging 16.2 points and connecting on 51.5 percent of his three-point attempts, and he acted as the team’s mouthpiece before and after the first round, questioning whether the Raptors had the “it” factor necessary to win the series and later calling out Toronto fan and rapper Drake after the sweep.
Wittman, now in his third full season and perhaps underappreciated for guiding the Wizards to a 46-win mark in the regular season, also deserves mountains of credit for his work. He slowly started switching up the Wizards lineup by playing Pierce at power forward, and he’s shown trust in veteran Drew Gooden and second-year forward Otto Porter.
After never making a three in his 54 previous post season games, Gooden’s knocked down 9-of-17 long range attempts and leads the squad at 52.9 percent. Porter, the No. 3 overall pick who was beset by injuries and only played in 37 games his rookie year, has flourished in his postseason debut. The former Georgetown star is hitting 46.7 percent of his threes and ripping down 8.0 boards and a steal per game thus far.
Wittman’s moves have gone a bit under the radar largely because he’s not exactly open with the media, preferring to keep his moves close to the chest. Wittman also admitted after the Toronto series that he didn’t roll out his best lineup during the regular season, but tossed aside those who questioned him during the first 82 games.
“Hey, I’m not gonna lie and say when I was younger, or when I first got into it you didn’t feel that,” Wittman told reporters. “Listen, we could go 82-0 and somebody’s gonna bitch about what kind of job you do. I don’t worry about that anymore at this stage of my career, and where I’m at.
“You just gotta be comfortable with what you’re doing. And as I stated all along, we went through a tough stretch. I thought at the end of the year we left some games out there. Our players thought that. But at the end of every year, you look back on your season: ‘God, we let that game get away.’
“But I also wanted them to realize that we’ve won more games than we ever had in 39 years. And that’s an accomplishment, too. There’s a fine line. Hey, listen, I don’t worry about it, because half those guys — or even, I’ll go three-quarters — don’t know what the heck they’re talking about anyway.”
Wittman focused on the key point. No one really knows what to expect from these Wizards, because we’ve really only seen this version play five games.
But a lot more could be in store for Washington. Love or no love.