CHICAGO – Coach Randy Wittman has experienced playoff basketball as an assistant coach and a player, so he entered his postseason debut as a head coach keenly aware of the heightened scrutiny and intensity. He remembers some great battles between the Atlanta Hawks and Boston Celtics, playing afternoon games and going home while the sun was still up.
But that didn’t fully prepare him for what was in store for his first playoff game as head coach of the Washington Wizards. Wittman admits that it was impossible not to get caught up in the excitement.
“It’s different. No question,” Wittman said after the Wizards took a 1-0 lead in their best-of-seven series against the Chicago Bulls. “Just everything. The intensity, the magnitude of the game, possessions seem to be more important, more than the regular season. For the most part, as I told our guys, we don’t need to do anything differently than we’ve done all year. I’ve got to adhere to that, too.”
Wittman confronted some difficult challenges on Sunday in Game 1 but made the right decisions to help his team claim home-court advantage in the series. He didn’t worry about disrupting what had worked in helping the Wizards win eight of their last 11 victories in the regular season and started Nene. He didn’t let his team get rattled when the Bulls built a 13-point third-quarter lead and he stuck with Andre Miller during a critical stretch in the fourth quarter, leaving John Wall on the bench for about three minutes longer than usual.
Starting Nene was an easy decision, since the Wizards have to be more concerned about going with their best five players at this time of year. The move was hardly a surprise, even as Wittman attempted to be coy about it. But even with Nene’s prior success against Chicago, his emphatic dunk went a long way toward helping the team settle into the game and take an early lead.
The Bulls, of course, responded by outscoring the Wizards, 27-11, over a seven-minute span between the end of the second period and the start of the third. Kirk Hinrich made a reverse layup to put Chicago up, 64-51, and Wittman quickly called a timeout.
“It’s always a game of runs. I can’t sit here and say what turned,” Wittman said. “I always tell our guys ‘Stay in the moment.’ I called a timeout and not a lot was said. I said, ‘You know what, they made a little run here and now we have to work our way back in. It’s not going to be done the next two minutes. It’s going to be a process.’ And they did. In the fourth quarter in was anybody’s game.”
The Wizards entered the fourth quarter trailing by just three points and Wittman stuck with a lineup of Nene, Andre Miller, Bradley Beal, Martell Webster and Trevor Booker, though that unit went more than two minutes without scoring.
Nene and Miller eventually started clicking and traded baskets. Marcin Gortat and Trevor Ariza replaced Webster and Booker but Wittman stayed with Miller until the game was tied with 4:33 left.
Wall entered the game, closed it out, and had no complaints afterward. “I don’t mind it,” he said. “I like getting my rest on the bench and seeing him go out there and do a great job gives me more energy and motive to go out there and finish the game when guys play big for us like that.”
Beal credited Wittman with instilling confidence in the players throughout his time with the team.
“What stands out to me is how he stayed with us,” Beal said. “He pushes us every day. He challenges us every day to be the best that we can be. We knew we could be a playoff team at the beginning of the year and now we’re here now. We’re setting more goals and standards, let’s get higher than that.”
Wittman’s counterpart, Tom Thibodeau, is a former coach of the year who finished third in voting to San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich and Phoenix’s Jeff Hornacek. Thibodeau has led the Bulls beyond the first round in two of his previous three trips, with the only loss coming when Chicago was unable to recover from losing Derrick Rose in the first game in 2012.
The Bulls lost the first game on the road in Brooklyn last season and recovered to win the series in seven games. Wittman is expecting the Bulls to play at a slower and more deliberate pace to resist the urge to engage in another shootout.
“That’s their style. We’ve got to play our pace. And I think, obviously, that they’re saying the exact opposite,” Wittman said. “But I don’t want [Wizards players] focusing on what they’re thinking. I want them to understand why we won, how we did it and not lose focus on that. We’re going to have to play even harder than we did [in Game 1]. That’s the thing I want our guys to realize. It’s not a time to step back and relax because we have a game on the road, we’re going to have to play even harder than we did last night. if our guys understand that, we’ll be okay.”