Can Washington Wizards Play Eastern Conference Spoiler?

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Can Washington Wizards Play Eastern Conference Spoiler?
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For the first time since 1982, the Washington Wizards have taken a 2-0 lead in a playoff series. It's hard to believe they'll just stop there.

While the Chicago Bulls almost certainly have some fight left in them, these Wizards are building momentum and aren't looking back. They have a nice mix of old and young players and an inside-outside attack even Tom Thibodeau's defense has yet to solve.

And surprisingly, they have composure. Just listen to what star point guard John Wall had to say before Game 2, per NBA.com's Steve 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 [during Game 1], we were staying aggressive and doing things at the defensive end to help us win.

That's gotten lost in the notion the Wizards are simply more talented than Chicago. This isn't just about talent. These guys are poised and intelligent. They know who they are and what they have left to learn.

They also know there's a lot more to be accomplished.

 

Chicago Bulls

This series is still a long way from over. It's not as though Washington ran away with these first two games. Game 2 was decided in overtime, Game 1 by a 30-18 fourth quarter that broke open an otherwise tight contest. 

And we shouldn't forget the Bulls did beat this team once during the regular season and by 18 points no less. Chicago held Washington to just 78 points in that game, showing off the kind of defense that threatens to keep it in this series. 

The emerging problem for the Bulls is Washington is actually a pretty good defensive club, too. Conventional wisdom suggests Chicago just doesn't have the tools to score, and there's some truth in that.

The Bulls ranked dead last league-wide in points scored. Without a healthy Derrick Rose, they struggled to generate half-court offense, relying on a hodgepodge of sets that utilize center Joakim Noah to the max.

At the very least, though, Washington has piled on, using its length and quickness to frustrate Chicago at key junctures (including overtime of Game 2).

According to head coach Randy Wittman, that's no accident. Per The Washington Post's Michael Lee, Wittman touted the team's defense after Game 2:

We have been building. The last two years we have been in a lot of top-two defensive categories. This team has the belief and I am an old-school coach. I come from Bobby Knight. You had to play defense. I still think defense wins at this stage.

So far it has.

And it's had some help from one the league's best young backcourts. Wall is averaging 16 points and 6.5 assists through his first two playoff games, the first playoff games of his young career. Shooting guard Bradley Beal bounced back from a rough 3-for-11 Game 1 to lead the team with 26 points in Game 2.

Chicago just doesn't have an answer. Jimmy Butler played 53 minutes in Game 2 and scored just six points. Taj Gibson and D.J. Augustin were both productive off the bench, but got their points on a combined 17-of-39 shots. No one is lighting it up efficiently for the Bulls.

Whether a testament to Wittman's defense or the Bulls systemic problems, it's a reality with which Chicago must contend. A reality that could very well send the Wizards to the second round.

 

Conference Semifinals

Rob Carr/Getty Images

Let's assume the Wizards make it out of the first round alive. Chances are Chicago takes at least a game or two, but denial can only go so far. The Wizards are now the favorites to win this series.

This is where things start to get interesting. Ordinarily, you'd count this team out pretty quickly. Sure, maybe they can upset an incomplete Chicago team, but that's where it ends, right?

I mean, they can't seriously take on the No. 1 seed—not with the inexperienced backcourt, not with the relatively thin bench, not led by a guy who's never coached a team to the NBA playoffs until this year. 

In any other year, that logic would make perfect sense.

But this season, the Indiana Pacers have turned everything on its head. The No. 1 seed isn't so scary anymore. The No. 1 seed is currently tied with the No. 8 seed at a game apiece, having forfeited home-court advantage in the process.

The No. 1 seed is suffering from an identity crisis that one convincing win (in Game 2) won't solve.

At this point there's no telling whether the Pacers will even make it out of the first round. If they do, they'd be favored against Washington by only the slimmest of margins.

Indiana beat Washington twice at home during the regular season, holding the Wizards to an average of just 69.5 points in those two games. But those games were also early in the season back when Indiana was—ya know—still good. In their third and final meeting (in March), Washington won 91-78.

The Wizards pose some matchup issues for Indiana. If Nene and Marcin Gortat can give Noah trouble in the post, you better believe they can muscle Roy Hibbert around a little bit. And as good as George Hill is on the defensive end, he'll be vastly outmatched by Wall.

Most importantly, the Pacers suffer from many of the problems plaguing the Bulls—namely, an inability to score. It's the perfect opportunity for Wittman's defense to again clamp down and exploit an opponent's offensive stagnation.

So yes, these first two rounds could be pretty ugly. We could be looking at a few low-scoring games—some classic Eastern Conference grind-it-out battles. 

But we could also be watching the Wizards upsetting Indiana in fairly short order (assuming the Hawks don't upset the Pacers first).

 

Beyond

And that's probably where the Cinderella story ends.

Probably.

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Granted, we're looking way out into the future at this point. Odds are the Miami Heat will be in the conference finals. Odds are the Charlotte Bobcats will not. The other two possibilities are the Toronto Raptors and Brooklyn Nets.

Whether either of those teams can upset Miami in the conference semifinals is a separate discussion altogether. Suffice it to say, whoever comes out of that series will be battle-tested and riding a momentum high with which Washington probably can't compete.

The Heat have championship pedigree that's unmatched in the East. The Raptors have superior depth. The Nets have a wealth of postseason experience.

The Wizards—should they make it that far—would probably be in some trouble.

With that being said, should the Wizards make it that far, it would be quite the story in its own right. We can't expect the impossible from this team. Instead, we should appreciate what it's accomplishing one game at a time.

There will be more postseasons in its future and many more opportunities to spoil.

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