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NBA PM: How Far Can Wizards Advance?

The Washington Wizards are one win away from advancing to the second round of the playoffs. How far can this team advance? … Sacramento Kings hoping to re-sign Rudy Gay and Isaiah Thomas.

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Entering the first round of the NBA playoffs, the Washington Wizards were one of the biggest underdogs in the field. After winning just 44 games in the regular season and struggling with inconsistency throughout the year, the Wizards weren’t expected to defeat the Chicago Bulls in a seven-game series.

Now, four games into the first-round matchup, the Wizards lead the Bulls, 3-1. Washington has looked incredible early in the postseason, receiving huge contributions from a number of players.

The Wizards rely heavily on youngsters John Wall and Bradley Beal, but their backcourt duo is surrounded by experienced veterans such as Nene, Marcin Gortat, Trevor Ariza, Andre Miller, Al Harrington, Drew Gooden and Martell Webster among others. This balanced attack makes Washington very difficult to stop and has helped them overcome adversity throughout this series.

When Wall and Beal combined to shoot 28 percent from the field in Game 1, the team managed to win because of strong outings from Nene and Gortat among others. When Nene was suspended for Game 4 after a confrontation with Jimmy Butler, the Wizards still got the victory thanks to a monster performance from Ariza as well as double-digit point totals from Wall, Beal and Gortat.

“Even with the news of Nene being suspended, I saw our guys bond together like, ‘That’s ok, big fella’s not going to be here, but that’s OK,’” Wizards head coach Randy Wittman said. “I think it was more a blessing in disguise, the last 21 games that he missed at the end of the year. [Trevor] Booker started all those games. There wasn’t any worry of mine sticking in a guy that has to now start in a playoff game because one of your main guys is now gone. Book did that for 21 games when [Nene] was gone. Our guys played well while he was gone and got us into a position to get into the playoffs and when he was back for the last four, we won those. It was more a ‘You know what? We know what to do. He missed 21 coming down the stretch.’”

“We played without him for a few games, so it’s nothing that we’re not used to,” Ariza said. “We’re used to playing against the eight ball. We feel that we’re the underdogs in this series. With that mentality, you’ve got nothing to lose so you go out there and you give it your all and whatever happens, happens.”

As Ariza said, the Wizards have embraced the underdog role and have used it as motivation.

“I know a lot of people probably doubted us,” Beal said. “It sparked up a little bit more fire under us.”

Wittman has stayed on his players, stressing that the team can’t be satisfied yet and that the close-out game is the hardest contest in a series to win.

“We haven’t done anything yet,” Wittman said. “We’ve put ourselves in a position to do something, but we have yet to do anything. … Our young guys, I told them, the hardest game you’ve yet to play. Closing out a series is hard. It’s hard and you’ve got to understand that. You’ve got to play harder than you’ve had to up to this point. I think if we can take that attitude, we are going to have an opportunity.”

“I think that’s the toughest game to play in the series, the close-out game, because you have a desperate team fighting for their playoff life and you have a team that’s trying to take it from them,” Ariza said. “I expect a lot of intensity, a lot of scrappy play. We just got to continue to fight, continue to play the way that we’ve been playing and try to get a win.”

If the Wizards are able to defeat the Bulls, they would face the winner of the Indiana Pacers – Atlanta Hawks series in the second round. It’s very possible that the Wizards could advance past either of those teams, meaning that a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals is realistic for a Washington team that won just 29 games last year.

“It’s growth,” Wittman said. “Listen, in two and a half years, we’ve grown and developed those intangibles you talk about. Not just the skill level, but playing the game the right way, doing the right things off the floor as well as on the floor, being professional, as I like to call it. I think now these guys are just playing basketball, they understand that this is a job. Playing games like this [in the postseason] helps that.”

Game 5 between the Wizards and Bulls is Tuesday at 8 p.m. ET.

Kings Hoping to Re-Sign Gay, Thomas

The Sacramento Kings won just 28 games during the 2013-14 season, but there were several bright spots that have the organization excited about the future. Among those bright spots were Rudy Gay, whom the team acquired from the Toronto Raptors early in the season, and Isaiah Thomas.

Gay played very well during his time in Sacramento, averaging 20.1 points, 5.5 rebounds and 3.1 assists in 55 games with the Kings. Thomas, who was the last pick in the 2011 NBA Draft, continued his incredible development and averaged 20.3 points, 6.3 assists and 1.3 steals.

Now both Gay and Thomas can enter free agency this summer. Gay can opt out of the final year of his contract worth $19,317,326 to become an unrestricted free agent and secure a new long-term deal. Thomas will be a restricted free agent once the Kings extend a $2,875,131 qualifying offer to the point guard.

Kings general manager Pete D’Alessandro recently did an end-of-season Q&A with Kings.com and he made it clear that the team hopes to keep both players this summer.

“Our fans know – I think we’ve been very clear about how we feel about their level of talent,” D’Alessandro said of Gay and Thomas. “I would say with Rudy, I’ve been talking to his agent since the day he arrived. We didn’t trade him to have him for a year, so we’re going to continue meeting with Rudy. One of the things we thought when we did the deal [to acquire] Rudy was it gives him a real chance to not just know our front office, but to know our community. I think he’s really impressed by the community in many ways – because our community really is impressive. One of the proudest moments for me this season, as a general manager, was when he, Aaron [Gray] and Quincy [Acy] came walking down the stands when they first arrived and everyone was just cheering. You could see it on their faces, and I think it makes you proud to be a part of a community that supports a team like that. He’s getting to know us from that level, so I think it’s really important. At the end of the day, this is a business. A decision needs to be made, and there’s a lot involved, but we’ve made no mistake about it with him, and he knows what our intent is with him. … Rudy is exactly what I expected, which has been nothing short of great. We see him as a very consistent, top-level player.

“With Isaiah, he’s had an incredible year. He’ll be facing restricted free agency this offseason, and he’s just been so good this year. The way he is with our fans and with his teammates, we just think the world of him. Again, this is a business decision that these men have to make in this league, and we’re going to engage Isaiah’s agents as well. We look forward to making this team better. … I think Isaiah always believed he could play like this, but I don’t think anyone else did. Now, they do. I give him all the credit for being able to do what he did. It was hard for him, too – we traded for a point guard. I talked about that right up front, and Isaiah consistently showed up every game.”

Alex Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Basketball Insiders and this is his 10th season covering the NBA. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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