The Washington Wizards took their first 2-0 series lead since 1982 on Tuesday night, continuing to restore respectability to a franchise that was among the NBA's worst just a season ago. They did so despite a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit, and they did so with one of the youngest backcourts in the league.
As Charles Barkley said after the game, "This team is growing up before our eyes, America."
Hopefully, America was watching. This is a new era for the Wizards, and it's led by a new generation of talent.
My, how things have changed.
Washington's starting guards, John Wall and Bradley Beal, are in the playoffs for the first time. They're led by a head coach, Randy Wittman, who's coaching in the playoffs for the first time. While there's experience on this roster, its most pivotal contributors are novices in almost every respect.
They've had good seasons, but regular seasons only count for so much—especially when talking about guys this young. Wall (age 23) averaged 19.3 points and 8.8 assists this season. He's put up 16 points in each of his first two postseason games, to go with a combined total of 13 assists.
Beal (age 20) showed some serious fortitude by bouncing back from an ugly Game 1 when he scored just 13 points on 3-of-11 shooting. He made nine of his 20 field-goal attempts in Game 2 en route to a team-high 26 points.
Unflappable and unflustered, Beal came out like a veteran in Game 2, confidently looking for his shots without forcing anything.
Together, Wall and Beal pushed the tempo against a stiff Bulls defense, creating opportunities for guys such as Nene with their penetration and ability to space the floor.
In the process, they've posed a problem for Chicago and its esteemed defense. In Game 1, it was Washington's inside guys doing most of the damage. In Game 2, it was the backcourt. The Bulls will struggle to adjust to both threats.
USA Today's Scott Gleeson contrasts the two wins, highlighting Beal's emergence in Game 2:
The Wizards backcourt took a backseat in Game 1, but in Beal (26 points) and John Wall (16 points) gave Washington its main offensive life in Game 2. Wall went scoreless in the second half after having a hot hand in the first and the second half belonged to Beal, who hit a momentum-shifting three-pointer with 2:47 left and a tear-drop with 1:23 remaining.
Washington has established a versatile inside-outside attack, putting pressure on Chicago's defense to be everywhere at once.
Joakim Noah's ability to help around the floor is compromised by his need to stay with Nene and Marcin Gortat. Both are big, meaty bodies who can push Noah around unless he secures early position. The need to remain glued to them in turn has limited Noah's ability to help around the floor—one of the traits that made him this season's Defensive Player of the Year.
Meanwhile, guards Kirk Hinrich and Jimmy Butler just look tired. They're being asked to keep up with young, spry legs that are flying around the court in constant motion. Hinrich was demonstrably ineffective down the stretch. Butler played 53 minutes, shooting just 2-of-9 from the floor.
Butler and Hinrich combined for just 18 points.
That's a sign of an overwhelmed, outmatched backcourt. And no, that's not a sustainable formula.
As analyst Steve Kerr mentioned several times during the telecast, the Wizards simply look more talented. The differential is almost certainly most noticeable among the guards. Whereas Noah, Carlos Boozer and Taj Gibson rival Nene and Gortat by almost any metric, it's the backcourt disparity that's proving most problematic for Chicago.
The Bulls also find themselves in something of a double bind. Backup point guard D.J. Augustin (25 points in Game 2) may be the Bulls' best pure scorer at the moment, but he leaves something to be desired defensively—especially on account of his size (6'0"). At 6'4", Wall is a much bigger guard who can go wherever he wants to when Augustin is on the floor.
But when he's not on the floor, Chicago often struggles to score. The Bulls were plus-eight with Augustin in the game, minus-13 with Hinrich in the game.
And yet, Hinrich's superior defense—for whatever it's been worth—kept him in the game for 32 minutes.
The Bulls will look to make adjustments, perhaps attacking Wall and Beal with multiple looks and help defenders, perhaps asking Jimmy Butler to guard the ball as much as possible.
They'll hope that the desperation of being down 0-2 fuels some kind of heroic effort on the road.
But the reality remains that the Bulls just don't have enough skilled scorers to compete with the Wizards. Wall and Beal are too multifaceted, too dynamic. Wall's improved perimeter game makes him a threat from all over the floor, preventing any one-dimensional defensive strategy. He's also adept at pulling up and striking from the mid-range.
So while the Bulls are doing a fine job walling off the basket against the young point guard's penetration, it hasn't been enough to shut him down entirely.
In his second season, Beal also boasts a much more well-rounded offensive portfolio. He made four three-pointers in Game 2 but also busted out a key floater in the fourth quarter.
Together, Wall and Beal got to the line 10 times.
There's no easy solution here, no magic bullet that the Bulls can deploy. These Wizards guards are fast, talented and have good size. And perhaps most importantly, they're mentally ready—more so than any of us would have predicted.
You never heard Wittman's name mentioned much in the Coach of the Year discussions, but he deserves a lot of credit for putting these guys in a position to succeed. Conventional wisdom suggested they would have been shaken by some combination of Chicago's active defense and the weighty expectations of performing during the postseason.
NBA.com's Steve Aschburner outlines the extent to which that conventional wisdom was already defied after Game 1:
John Wall and Bradley Beal have the talent necessary to compete with, maybe even defeat, the Chicago Bulls in their best-of-seven Eastern Conference series. They have the health, they have the stamina, they have the enthusiasm.
What the Washington Wizards' young starting backcourt doesn't have is playoff experience. And getting it on the fly against a salty Bulls team seemed to many like it might be asking too much. By the time the Wiz guards fully get it, folks figured, five, six or seven games – and four defeats – might have slipped away.
If Game 1 proved otherwise, Game 2 served as a very persuasive closing argument. As Wall himself noted, via Aschburner:
We've got great veteran guys and our young guys are mature for their age. Even though it was our first playoff game, we didn't get rattled, we didn't try to do it on our own. We stuck with the game concept and making the right plays. And even though me and Brad's shots weren't falling, we were staying aggressive and doing things at the defensive end to help us win.
That's precisely the kind of attitude you want from a couple of young leaders, and it should come as no surprise that the shots fell a little more often in Game 2.
With that kind of mentality at their side, it's tempting to start thinking about the Wizards' ceiling in these playoffs. If they can beat the Bulls, what's stopping them from beating the Indiana Pacers or Atlanta Hawks in the Eastern Conference Semifinals?
Certainly not John Wall and Bradley Beal.