Wizards Will Be a Tough Out
Entering the first round of the playoffs, the Toronto Raptors were favored over the Washington Wizards in the Eastern Conference’s four-versus-five series. Both teams had stumbled in the second half of the season, but Toronto finished as the higher seed and earned home-court advantage for the first round. The Raptors also swept the regular-season series against the Wizards, 3-0.
However, Washington didn’t seem the slightest bit worried about the match-up. Before the series, Paul Pierce made headlines when he told ESPN, “We haven’t done particularly well against Toronto, but I don’t feel they have the ‘it’ that makes you worried.” This upset a number of Raptors players, and prompted general manager Masai Ujiri to say “we don’t give a sh** about ‘it’” at a fan event (which led to a $35,000 fine for him and a $25,000 fine for the organization).
It appears Pierce knew what he was talking about. The Wizards advanced to the second round on Sunday, sweeping the Raptors. It was the first sweep of a seven-game series in Wizards franchise history. The series was incredibly one-sided, as Washington’s four wins had an average margin of victory of 14 points. Their Game 4 win that allowed them to advance was a 31-point beat down. It was the exact opposite of what occurred during the regular season.
“We just had to keep our emotions under control; we did a good job of that,” Wizards head coach Randy Wittman said. “We didn’t want to back down from a physical stand point. … For us to come out and get it in four is good. That means we have a few days here of rest, and to get our bodies back and get back our focus on who we will have to play.
“To get to four is the hardest game. I’m really proud of our group. They were locked in and in tune to what we had to do, and business like. I challenged them the last two days that I needed to see that we were the desperate team [in Game 4]. We had to act like our backs were against the wall and lay it out on the line from the start. It was workman-like by staying the course of what we had to do.”
After the series, Raptors head coach Dwane Casey was defeated and out of answers. No matter what he tried to do, it seemed to fail. By Game 4, his team couldn’t even stay competitive in the elimination game.
“We tried everything – they executed well against everything,” Casey said. “You have to tip your hat to them. I feel like we were emotionally drained and emotionally ran out of gas to continue the fight. Hats off to Washington, they’re playing big-time basketball.”
That big-time basketball has the Washington players feeling very good heading into the next round, where they’ll face the winner of the Atlanta Hawks vs. Brooklyn Nets series. Washington is confident, but it’s clear that Wittman and the team’s veterans have been preaching that the group needs to stay humble and not get ahead of themselves.
“It gave us a great deal of confidence because this is a top five scoring team; they have so many guys that are giving 20 to 30 [points] every night,” Bradley Beal said. “We did a good job at containing them as much as possible. This series really gives us confidence, but at the same time we really have to stay humble. We have another tough series up next and another after that if we advance. It never stops. I think we do great job of staying poised and staying humble.”
“It’s great – we want to get to the Eastern Conference Finals, but we just got to take it one game at a time, each round at a time,” John Wall said. “It’s great to get this out of the way and get a little bit of rest, while the other guys are playing. We need to make sure we stay in shape and execute our game plan, things like that. It’s exciting. We didn’t finish the season as well as we wanted to and a lot of people didn’t have us favored to win this series because we didn’t beat them in the regular season, but we showed a different mindset and hunger during the playoffs. … We can’t get too confident. We got to stay humble and hungry. We just got to wait and see who our next opponent is. The main focus is to play the same way we did this round and we can give ourselves a chance.”
As Wall mentioned, the Wizards sputtered toward the end of the regular season, which led to a lot of doubts entering the playoffs. From Jan. 28 through Feb. 27, the Wizards dropped 11 of 13 games. This included losses to lottery-bound teams like the Minnesota Timberwolves, Philadelphia 76ers and Detroit Pistons. Then, to close the season, Washington dropped eight of their final 14 games.
Pierce called the team out for being inconsistent and playing up or down to their opponents, but it appears the Wizards were able to find a rhythm and step up when the games mattered most.
Several players credited veterans like Pierce and Drew Gooden for stressing that the Wizards must play unselfish, team-first basketball in the postseason. Now, after seeing the results in the first round, Washington knows they must continue to play this way in order to make a deep run.
“It does not matter who is going to score as long as we are winning and we understood this at the end of the season, and we are having fun playing like that in the playoffs,” Marcin Gortat said. “This is the recipe. We have to continue to play like that.”
“We are playing the right way,” Wall said. “That’s the biggest key. … We locked in. The focus we had coming into this series, on the practice court and in shootaround, was the best we’ve ever had since I’ve been here.”
Before the series, in that same ESPN interview where he questioned the Raptors, Pierce called out Wall and Beal for only being great in some games rather than playing at that level every night.
“I talk to them a lot about mental preparation and consistency,” Pierce told ESPN. “I keep telling Wall and Beal, ‘You’ve got to make up your mind. Do you want to be good, or do you want to be great? Because if you want to be great, you gotta do it every single night, not just when you feel like it.’ Both of those guys have the potential to be great. I love them. But sometimes I’m not sure they realize what it takes.”
However, after the series, he was singing his backcourt’s praises. Wall averaged 17.3 points, 12.5 assists, 4.0 rebounds and a block, while pushing the pace and dominating the point guard match-up against fellow All-Star Kyle Lowry. Beal averaged 20.8 points, 5.3 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 1.5 steals. Pierce (who played well too, averaging 15.5 points while shooting 57.6 percent from the field and 58.3 percent from three) was proud of his 24-year-old and 21-year-old teammates after the sweep.
“I always try to tell these guys in the locker room, the playoffs are a different ball game,” Pierce said. “I’ve been on teams where we have swept other teams in the regular season and then couldn’t get a win versus them in the playoffs, or maybe [we won only] one game. The playoffs are a different game. The intensity goes up, more is on the line. That’s when you see the stars become superstars and that’s what you saw in this series from John and Bradley.”
Now, it’s clear that the Wizards feel their postseason run is only beginning. While winning a first-round series was a huge deal for the young Wizards last season, they have bigger goals they want to achieve this year and losing in the second round would be considered a disappointment in the locker room.
When asked about being the first team in Wizards history to pull off a sweep in a seven-game playoff series, Wall brushed it aside and spoke of the team’s larger goals.
“It’s great, but we want to keep accomplishing more things,” Wall said. “We’ve started off on the right path by winning our series. The main thing was we went on the road, won two games and had the opportunity to close it out here. That’s something we probably couldn’t have done last year, protect the home court. We did a great job this series.”
“We have that mindset that we are not finished,” Beal said, “and that we are an elite team in this league.”
They certainly looked like it in the first round and it seems the Wizards are going to be a very tough out since they’re clicking and playing their best basketball at the perfect time.
Steve Kerr Wins PBWA’s Rudy Tomjanovich Award
Steve Kerr of the Golden State Warriors has won the 2014-15 Rudy Tomjanovich Award, which is given to a coach for his cooperation with the media and fans as well as his excellence on the court, the Professional Basketball Writers Association announced today.
In his first season as Golden State’s head coach, Kerr guided his team to a league-best 67-15 record and “fostered an atmosphere of mutual respect, thoughtfulness and congeniality with the working media,” according to the PBWA statement.
The PBWA selected five finalists for the award this season. The other finalists were the Toronto Raptors’ Dwane Casey, the Los Angeles Clippers’ Doc Rivers, the Boston Celtics’ Brad Stevens and the Detroit Pistons’ Stan Van Gundy.
Kerr won the award through a vote of PBWA members. The PBWA comprises approximately 175 writers and editors who cover the NBA on a regular basis and work for newspapers, Internet services and magazines.
The award is named for Rudy Tomjanovich, the former Houston Rockets player and former Rockets and Los Angeles Lakers coach who always was professional and respectful in his dealings with the media.
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