John Wall used to scribble, “playoffs,” on his sneakers before each game to remind himself of the shared goal within the Wizards organization. The Wizards reached that goal two weeks ago, so Wall decided to go with a new slogan: “We made it.”
The new message doesn’t reflect complacency or satisfaction with an accomplishment that’s relatively modest, considering the flimsiness of the Eastern Conference this season. To Wall, it’s a declaration of what the Wizards can accomplish by sticking together, sharing the ball and staying committed on the defensive end.
“Playoffs was our goal as a team,” Wall said. “We made that part and now just put, ‘We made it’ on there and see how far we can keep going. See what the next step takes us.”
Washington (44-38) found out Wednesday that the next step will be opening the postseason in Chicago, against a familiar playoff foe.
Michael Jordan’s Bulls swept the Wizards in three games in 1997 (after a nine-year drought for Washington). The Wizards beat Scott Skiles’ grimy Bulls in six games in 2005 (after an eight-year drought). And now, the grimier Tom Thibodeau Bulls will host the Wizards in Sunday’s Game 1 (after a six-year drought).
“Mind-set is to go in there and win the series; that’s the only mind-set you should have,” Coach Randy Wittman said. “We’ve played this team the last two years extremely well; we are 2-1 against them this year. They came in and smacked us pretty good last game so that should be a good fresh wound on our guys, the message that they sent us last we played them.”
For weeks, the Wizards appeared to be on a collision course with Toronto — another team that hadn’t been to the playoffs since 2008 — and if the season ended Tuesday, that very well would’ve been the case. With the playoff menu items reading fifth, sixth or seventh, the Wizard thrashed the Boston Celtics and claimed the best possible option after the Brooklyn Nets rested their starters, basically conceding fifth place.
“We started off early that we could be a top-three team in the Eastern Conference,” Trevor Ariza. “Unfortunately, we didn’t achieve that goal, but I think that you give yourself a chance to finish anywhere between five or whatever, it’s always a good thing. We had our ups; we had our downs. But for the most part, it’s definitely been a step in the right direction for this franchise. I’m happy for this organization and happy for the player’s that’s been here throughout the drought. And we’re just going to try to win some games in this playoff.”
The Wizards didn’t necessarily have a preferred first-round opponent, but they had the most regular-season success against Chicago, winning two games in January before getting hammered at home on April 5 at Verizon Center. The Raptors had won three of four, with the only loss coming in triple overtime after losing three starters to injury or disqualification.
“We just didn’t want to be the seventh seed, to be honest,” which would’ve meant facing the two-time defending champion Miami Heat, Wall said. “I feel like we like our chances against anybody we play the right way. Toronto is the only team that really manhandled us. Chicago let us know what a playoff game is like; they came into our home last time, jumped on us early and got a big lead. We know what they’re capable of. We just got to go out there and play the right way, the defense we’re capable of playing.”
Nene was healthy for the first two games against the Bulls and scored a team-high 19 points in a victory at United Center on Jan. 13, while recording the sealing block in a win at Verizon Center on Jan. 18. Still recovering from a knee injury for the last meeting, Nene has since returned and scored in double figures off the bench in limited in his final four games of the regular season.
“I just try to do my best,” Nene said. “And I just try to best to help my team be in the best position. My teammates, they help me to be in this position, to make me better and back into my game shape. I think, I’m sure, by the playoffs I’ll be good. I’m not there, but I expect to be there.”
The Wizards’ ability to withstand a six-week absence without Nene provided some confidence, and now they will enter the postseason as the Eastern Conference’s hottest team, having won four straight. Washington has won eight of 11 overall.
“I think we have a lot of confidence,” Bradley Beal said. “We’re happy where we’re at and how we’re playing. It’s a great feeling, knowing that you’ll get to continue to play and you’re not going home now. Me personally, it’s my second year. It’s definitely one to remember.”