Wizards Enter 2nd Round of Playoffs Heavy Favorites Regardless of Opponent

Grant HughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistApril 29, 2014

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The Washington Wizards find themselves in a strange situation these days, and it's not just because they're advancing to the second round of the NBA playoffs for just the third time since 1979.

Stranger still is their status as nearly certain favorites in that second round—no matter which unlucky foe is there to meet them.

In one sense, that's an indictment of the quality we're seeing in the still-undecided first-round series between the Atlanta Hawks and Indiana Pacers. Those clubs look gimmicky and broken, respectively. Neither profiles as a real threat to win a series against a quality opponent.

But as much as Washington's status as a favorite says about the weakness of its potential opponents, it might say more about how dangerous this team really is. That's a reality we have to accept after watching the way it dismantled a Chicago Bulls team not known for going quietly.

In closing out the Bulls on Tuesday by a final score of 75-69, the Wizards proved plenty about themselves—including the fact that they can win ugly. That'll be necessary in the next round, and it was somewhat surprising to see against Chicago.

The Bulls prefer a sloppy game, and it stood to reason that the Wizards' athleticism and offensive talent might not hold up against the kind of playing style in which Chicago typically thrives. But Washington overcame its own 40.5-percent shooting in Game 5 by winning the hustle battle.

It got to work in the trenches, outscoring the Bulls in the paint by a margin of 26-18. It did the dirty work on the glass, out-rebounding Chicago, 49-43, on the night and punctuating the win with a brilliant closing run.

Washington had more offensive talent than the Bulls, more scoring star power in John Wall and Bradley Beal, who combined for 41 points in Game 5 and averaged 38.6 for the series. But it won a decisive game in which it scored just 75 points. That says as much as anything about the Wizards' playoff chops.

We now know they're ready to defend at a high level, something their No. 9 defensive rating during the regular season reinforces. We also know they're playing with a massive "nobody believes in us" defiance, an annoying yet motivational factor for the "underdogs."

But hey, the Wizards are moving on because they were flat-out better than Chicago, beaten and offensively flawed as it was. They have the right to gloat.


Why Washington Can Beat the Hawks

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That gloating might not come to an end anytime soon, as Washington should have an advantage against the Hawks in the conference semifinals.

Washington went 3-1 in four regular-season meetings with the Hawks, and the lone defeat came in overtime on Dec. 13. It's worth noting that Atlanta got 34 points and 15 rebounds from Al Horford in that game.

It's also worth noting that Horford's season has been over for months because of a pectoral injury. Nobody on Atlanta's roster can match the size and skill of Nene and Marcin Gortat down low. Running circles around Roy Hibbert and the shattered Pacers is what smart, athletic guys like Paul Millsap are supposed to do.

It won't be nearly as easy against the Wizards.

Plus, Washington has the lanky wings and rangy guards necessary to chase down Atlanta's shooters when the Hawks spread the floor. And if screens become a big part of the Hawks offense, Washington can toss a lineup out there with the versatility to happily switch them.

Nick Wass/Associated Press

This is not a matchup that plays to Atlanta's strengths.


Why Washington Can Beat the Pacers

The Pacers don't present an especially frightening threat, either. The version of Indiana that existed a few months ago certainly would have, but we're way past the days of believing the Pacers of January will suddenly materialize now.

This Indiana team can't score, gets nothing from Hibbert and doesn't seem to like each other much. If it manages to survive against the Hawks, it'll head into the second round against a more balanced, more dangerous, more confident opponent in the Wizards.

Forget Washington's 1-2 record in three meetings with the Pacers this year. Instead, focus on the one win that came against Indiana as it exists now. That triumph, a 91-78 beating on March 28, is far more predictive of what we're likely to see in a postseason matchup.

Most of all, Washington has a ton of fight in it.

If you've been watching the Pacers lately, you know they don't have the same willingness to compete.

A No. 1 seed, the Pacers would normally get the benefit of the doubt, not to mention home-court advantage. But, for the millionth time, these Pacers are not a normal No. 1 seed.

They're more like a No. 1 husk.


Why This Is So Much Fun

CHICAGO, IL - APRIL 29: John Wall #2 of the Washington Wizards celebrates after Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the Chicago Bulls in the 2014 NBA Playoffs on April 29, 2014 at the United Center in Chicago, Illinois. NOTE TO USER: Us
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It's great to have a new contender on the block in the East.

Washington is equally likable and hateable. It plays with the reckless abandon of its young guards and the inferiority complex of its hungry, downtrodden fans.

The Wizards are a great watch, thanks largely to Wall's rapid maturation into a star and Randy Wittman's unpredictable gaffes. They're not always perfect, but they're darn good.

And they're new, which is usually exciting in its own right. This is a team that hadn't won a playoff game since 2008 and hadn't even sniffed the playoffs in any of the past five seasons.

That's why the Wizards appreciate how far they've come, why they're so focused on going farther.

Washington is hardly a lock to make it to the conference finals. It's too early to predict that with any certainty, and if these playoffs have taught us anything, it's that every series is basically a tossup.

But the Wizards are not going to meet a very strong opponent in the second round, and the path to advancement is looking pretty smooth as a result. So while seeing Washington in the second round feels strange to begin with, it's even stranger to consider the fact it'll almost certainly be favored to show up in the third.


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