Young Wizards know enough to win
CHICAGO -- A relatively inexperienced backcourt was supposed to spell doom for the Washington Wizards in the playoffs, except John Wall and Bradley Beal are just naive enough not to realize there is a pecking order when it comes to these types of things.
So while the belief was that the Wizards were too green to compete with the seasoned and bruising Chicago Bulls, they turned perceived weaknesses into the very reason they just might make a deep run in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
The twentysomethings -- 23-year-old Wall had 24 points and 20-year-old Beal had 17 on Tuesday as the Wizards' defensive-minded 75-69 victory clinched their first-round series 4-1, pushing them into a matchup with either the vulnerable Indiana Pacers or the No. 8 seed Atlanta Hawks.
"I'm really happy for Bradley Beal and John because a lot of people said bad things about them, that they weren't going to be able to perform in the playoffs," said teammate Nene Hilario, who handled the physical part of things inside with center Marcin Gortat. "I take my hat off to them."
Suddenly, it isn't so hard to see the Wizards moving to within one series of the NBA Finals, something that wasn't being considered much outside the Beltway when the regular season ended.
The 6-foot-4 Wall, and the 6-5 Beal can present matchup problems, as Chicago learned in this series. Not on the tale of the tape is their penchant for fearless play in pressure situations despite making their first postseason appearances.
"They are growing up, there is no question about that," Wizards coach Randy Wittman said. "I was not really concerned that this would be too big of a stage for them, but you never know. With the way they handled it, both of them being 18 or 19 years old when they came into the league, I knew they were a little different than other 18- or 19-year-olds.
"They grew through something like this and now they can grow some more as we move forward."
A clutch gene was on display in the second half. Late in the third quarter, Beal hit an 18-foot jumper just as the shot clock was expiring to give the Wizards a 60-52 lead.
In the fourth quarter, after the Bulls had cut the Wizards' lead to 65-62 on a 3-pointer by Kirk Hinrich, Wall came right back with his own 3 to extend the cushion. Wall then added the exclamation point by pounding his chest with his closed fist as he turned to run downcourt.
"It was a great feeling. It was an opportunity I was looking forward to," Wall said as he shared the postgame podium with Beal. "Coming to the Wizards and being drafted No. 1 and going through the tough times with my teammates, I was given enough rope to be the leader of this team and given the trust to run the offense."
Now he has a running mate in Beal whom he can advise. The duo is starting to show what it's capable of doing for many years to come. But the first step was to successfully navigate a playoff series.
"It's been a long journey we've been on," Beal said. "John's journey has been longer than mine. This is my second year, and for us to make the playoffs and win a tough series against a great team means a lot. At the same time, it's a humbling experience because a lot of people doubted us. Now we know what we are capable of doing. Now we just have to take it one game at a time."
It's always nice, though, to have some big brothers to assist with some of the challenges growth requires. The 31-year-old Nene and the 30-year-old Gortat are standing right behind the Wizards' young guards to provide support, literally and figuratively.
Their inside might was on full display in the closing minutes, when the Wizards pulled down three consecutive offensive rebounds to keep their possession alive and keep Chicago at bay. They didn't end up scoring, but the time drained was enough to demoralize the Bulls.
In the final minute, Washington guard Andre Miller missed two free throws, but Nene was able to tap the second miss back to Miller as the Wizards once again maintained possession and ran off valuable seconds. Suspended in Game 4 for an altercation with the Bulls' Jimmy Butler, Nene said he was inspired by his teammates' play Sunday, and it showed.
"It was all his intangibles," Wittman said. "I use that word for Nene all the time. He can score, he can shoot, he can post, he can dribble, he can pass and he can defend. When he is not there, we cannot put one guy in there who has all those things. Having him back gave us a good comfort level."
Wittman was the architect of it all. Heady stuff from a coach in charge of a playoff series for the first time. He turned a team that was inconsistent at times during the regular season into one that was able to stick to the same solid plan for five consecutive games.
With the series win, it no longer matters that the Wizards hadn't been to the playoffs since 2008 and had gone through a complete rebuild, centered around Wall, since then. And no longer is it a topic that they haven't moved past the first round since 2005.
The Wizards are writing a new narrative, and they seem to be penning it with a steady hand.
"I think everything we have been through was necessary to give us maturity, to give us experience," Nene said. "Everything that happened was supposed to, and that's the reason we are in this position. You need to fail to succeed. We've been learning the last two years, and now is our moment. That's what I think."