The Wizards enter the playoffs after a wild up-and-down final few weeks of the regular season.
After clinching the franchise’s first playoff berth since 2008 on April 2, the Wizards seemingly relaxed. In their next two games, they suffered a blowout loss to Chicago in which they scored 26 first-half points and fell to Charlotte in overtime.
Then Washington refocused for the final stretch — racking up four straight wins to close the season and finish in fifth place in the Eastern Conference, setting up a first-round matchup with Chicago.
So are the Wizards just happy to be in the playoffs or are they ready to make some noise? The first clues may come Sunday when the series opens in Chicago.
“I think that everybody who loves the game of basketball that makes it to the NBA, that’s your ultimate goal — to win the NBA championship,” point guard John Wall said. “That’s my goal. … I think we’re taking the right steps in finally getting ourselves in the playoffs this season.”
Wall, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2010 NBA draft, will be making his playoff debut Sunday along with several other of the younger Wizards players, including Bradley Beal and Trevor Booker.
“It’s going to be special,” coach Randy Wittman said. “No matter what the outcome is, guys that haven’t been in the playoffs will remember that first game forever because it is so distinct and different. But we also have to channel that in the right way and be ready to play. That’s the main thing.”
The Wizards have a solid veteran group that can help prepare the younger players for their first playoff experience. Nene, Marcin Gortat, Andre Miller, Al Harrington and Drew Gooden each have more than 40 games of postseason experience.
While it was a notable accomplishment for Washington to finish with the No. 5 seed, the Wizards face a Bulls squad that’s playoff-tested and physical. Chicago has overcome the loss of Derrick Rose to a season-ending injury and the salary dump trade of Luol Deng to finish with the East’s best record since the All-Star break.
The Wizards know they need to bring their A-game.
“We are starting to pay a lot more attention to detail,” forward Harrington said. “In order to win in the playoffs, that’s what we have to do. Guys have to grow up fast.”
The playoff series will do wonders for Washington’s young core, but to the players, this is about more than making a token appearance.
“I was hoping we were going to be in playoffs, we are in the playoffs and now we’re going to try to make a run,” center Gortat said.
Wizards vs. Bulls Head-to-Head
Jan. 13: Wizards 102, Bulls 88: John Wall and Nene each had 19 points in this surprisingly easy victory for Washington in which it never trailed.
Jan. 17: Wizards 96, Bulls 93: A quick turnaround saw Wall again pace the Wizards with 23 points and 11 rebounds in a back-and-forth affair.
April 5: Bulls 96, Wizards 78: An ugly performance for the Wizards, who mustered just 26 first-half points en route to one of their worst losses of the year.
Marcin Gortat vs. Joakim Noah: Gortat has been extremely solid in the middle for the Wizards, but he will have his hands full against all-around nuisance Noah, who is playing at an MVP-caliber level on both ends of the court.
John Wall vs. D.J. Augustin: On paper, a mismatch, but the Bulls always manage to do more with less. Wall must be able to use his speed to create opportunities for his teammates and handle some of the scoring burden.
Randy Wittman vs. Tom Thibodeau: The Bulls’ boss is widely considered one of the finest minds in the game, a master tactician who has turned a ragtag Chicago team into a defensive force of nature. Wittman has a 191-329 coaching record and a history of questionable in-game decisions.