The Washington Wizards aren't going anywhere.
To wit: They'll eventually go somewhere—back to Washington for Game 3, the Eastern Conference Finals, McDonald's for hot chocolate, Disney World (maybe), etc. But immediately, in this year's NBA playoffs, they're here to stay a while.
A long while.
The idea of a somewhat deep postseason push was entertained midway through their first-round series against the Chicago Bulls. Experts were all over the Bulls (me). Quickly and not at all quietly, the Wizards made many NBA authorities rethink their picks and perception of Wizards basketball (me again).
Five games later, the Wizards advanced. Unabashed confidence in the Bulls was replaced by sheepish applause and nods of approval directed in Washington's direction as the team awaited either the Indiana Pacers or Atlanta Hawks.
Facing the Hawks, in theory, would have been a more favorable matchup. But the Wizards pulled the Pacers, who are simultaneously dangerous and quite awful. Either way, the Wizards didn't blink. They stormed past Indy in Game 1, winning 102-96, using yet another victory to deliver a powerfully succinct message: They're here to stay.
The Booming Bradley Beal
Bradley Beal is hosting a party. Everyone is invited. There will be no cake, bobbing for apples or bounce-house swag, but there will be plenty of incredible basketball.
The Wizards' sophomore has been sensational during the postseason, averaging 20.7 points, five rebounds, 4.7 assists and 1.7 steals per game. He's also shooting an absurd 48.1 percent from deep while attempting 4.5 three-pointers a night.
Almost a week's worth of rest in between series didn't slow him down during Game 1 in Indiana. If anything, he looked more comfortable than ever playing in hostile territory against a bruising Pacers team that was—once upon a time—supposed to challenge the reigning champion Miami Heat.
In just under 43 minutes, Beal tallied 25 points, seven rebounds, seven assists and five steals. The last player to register said benchmarks in one playoff game was Baron Davis in 2002. Only seven total players have accomplished the same feat since 1986.
Here's the list:
- Isiah Thomas
- Magic Johnson
- Michael Jordan (five times)
- Scottie Pippen
- Gary Payton
- Baron Davis
- Bradley Beal
Now that's how you make your postseason debut worthwhile.
Beal has been everything he's cracked up to be, and more. His jump shot comes effortlessly, he's making smart decisions and he's really stepped up as a playmaker when defenses collapse on his dribble penetration.
Fourteen of Beal's 25 points came in the fourth quarter, when the Pacers were making a run and the Wizards needed a few daggers to preserve their lead. Beal came through, burying two threes that stomped the life out of a largely listless Indiana team.
Though he was shaky at the foul line, Beal adjusted to the Pacers' defense well. Point-blank opportunities weren't readily available, so he used his sweet shooting and one out-of-this-world floater to keep the Wizards' lead intact.
For most of the game—especially during the fourth quarter—Beal was reading and reacting on the defensive end, clogging up passing lanes in traffic, making life difficult on ball-handlers. Lazy passes became a staple of the Pacers offense, so you can imagine how easy it was for Beal to disrupt their already nonexistent flow.
Game 1 was basically symbolic of everything Beal is doing, and the player he's developing into. Two seasons in, his skill set is both evolving and flourishing.
Eye on Basketball's Zach Harper put it best:
It's a feel for the game that's quite astute but still in development. That's a terrifying thought for the rest of the league. What happens if he catches up to Wall's development? Is there any doubt that this is quickly becoming the best backcourt in the NBA, if not knocking on the door already? His 25-point, 7-rebound, 7-assist, 5-steal performance in the Game 1 victory over the Pacers was the perfect example of how stealthy his game can be.
. . .
The shooting stroke was pure, like it was advertised during the predraft coverage of his class. The 33.9 percent from the college 3-point line was but a mere afterthought, as he was now a career 39.6 percent outside shooter and working on a playoff 3-point percentage of 48.1 percent. As he was dropping big shot after big shot, like we saw during the opening round series against the Bulls, we were reminded often that this poised scoring threat is only 20 years old.
Beal is only 20, and playing like a superstar on the Association's biggest stage. Not to say he is a superstar, but he's getting there.
And so are the Wizards, whose playoff stock is moored to Beal's postseason breakout.
What if I told you a few months ago that the Wizards would be a threat to make the Eastern Conference Finals?
In all likelihood, those outside Washington—along with some of our nation's capital's finest—would have called me all sorts of meanspirited names.
If I had told you the Wizards would be contending for an Eastern Conference Finals appearance while John Wall is shooting under 36 percent from the floor, there would have been a face-palming epidemic.
But that's exactly what the Wizards are doing.
Everyone is pitching in. In light of shooting struggles, Wall has taken to drawing contact and deferring. The free-throw line has been his bread and butter. He's attempting almost twice as many foul shots now (8.7) as he was during the regular season (4.8). All things considered, he's managed to avoid becoming an offensive liability despite his transgressions from the field.
Marcin Gortat and Nene have taken turns spearheading the attack down low. On some nights, Nene scores while Gortat rebounds, or vice versa. They have a unique synergy to their partnership. It's not always efficient or pretty, but they know their way around pick-and-rolls and are able to stretch defenses as mid-range threats.
Even Drew Gooden has postseason value. While he's used sparingly, he comes in, hands out hard fouls and sits back down. He'll make a night of cleaning up the offensive glass, too, as he showed in Game 1.
Finally, there has been Trevor Ariza, who finds himself mentioned last by design. He's been unbelievable. Like, actually unbelievable. If you weren't watching him, you wouldn't buy his stat lines.
Wall's shooting slump has called for a second consistent scoring option. Defenses are keying in on Washington's point man—often to the benefit of Beal—and forcing other players to hit shots.
Ariza has been hitting shots.
Almost all his shots.
The 10-year veteran is averaging 16.7 points and 8.2 rebounds on 52.2 percent shooting thus far. He's also shooting 55.9 percent from beyond the arc, giving him a little piece of NBA history.
Through six or fewer playoff games, no one else has ever shot 55 percent or better from deep after attempting at least 34 bombs. Ariza stands alone.
After his 6-of-6 showing from behind the rainbow in Game 1, he also stands with Peja Stojakovic and Robert Horry as the only three players since 1986 to convert all of their treys while attempting at least six in a single playoff game.
It's tough to beat a team that can come at you from so many different angles. Wall's inconsistent scoring hand should put the Wizards at a disadvantage, but they keep coming.
Other players are scoring. Most of them are playing defense. The Wizards are winning in every way imaginable. They're building big leads, staving off late-game comebacks and surviving 48-minute slugfests.
They're just flat-out winning, offering no reason to why they will stop anytime soon.
Thank You, Pacers
When the Pacers emerged from their first-round victory over Atlanta, they did not move forward unscathed.
Out of the first round came a blueprint to beat the Pacers. Stretching the floor and forcing Roy Hibbert to defend outside eight feet makes them weak. It puts Hibbert in foul trouble. It messes with the Pacers' psyche.
Crowding their ball-handlers on offense puts them in a funk. The ball stops moving. Players without the rock become spectators. Shots begin ricocheting off the rim with unsightly frequency. The Pacers start to wilt. They become a hotbed for offensive and defensive disconnect.
That's what happened for most of Game 1.
The Wizards followed Atlanta's lead while incorporating a few tweaks of their own, as Sports Illustrated's Matt Dollinger pointed out:
The Wizards might look different with Nene and Marcin Gortat down low, but they’re doing the exact same thing to the Pacers as the Hawks did in the series prior. The quickness of the Wiz’s backcourt is giving Indiana the same fits Teague did. Much like Atlanta, Washington is using the three-ball to spread Indy’s defense, and neutralize the regular-season’s stingiest unit. And the Wizards are outhustling and outmuscling the shell-shocked Pacers to every loose ball — giving Indiana the same look of helplessness it emitted last week.
There were a few differences, of course. With Hibbert in foul trouble for much of the game, the Pacers began overcompensating for Washington's shooters. The Wizards responded with rim attacks and settling for mid-range jumpers, and by outhustling a slow Pacers team to offensive rebounds.
Mostly, they took what the Pacers gave them, rarely forcing the issue, better than the Hawks ever did. Their game-high 16-point lead was the product of shrewd adjustments, lights-out shooting and—equally important—letting the Pacers continue their downward spiral.
This wasn't just one game for the Pacers. This was another sorry display in a string of many. They haven't wised up. They haven't learned.
Players are making the same mistakes. Head coach Frank Vogel seemingly refuses to make the necessary lineup adjustments. Hibbert hasn't been good for months. They have yet to collectively understand their defense is solvable and their offense is a broken mess of too much George and not enough ball movement.
Anything can change after one game. A Game 2 win could build confidence; it could be the start of something. For now, though, the Pacers aren't favorites to win this series. They can't be.
A hungry, spread-the-wealth Wizards team must be the front-runner now. If it wasn't true before Game 1, it was abundantly clear after. They aren't going anywhere.
Except the Eastern Conference Finals.
*Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference unless otherwise noted.
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