Wizards, second round. Second round, Wizards. About time you guys get to know each other again, huh?
What’s it been, something like eight years and 362 days — 3,282 planetary rotation whereby Washington’s NBA team has either been exiled to the draft lottery, been one-and-done in the Eastern Conference playoffs and played not one measly minute of a second-round postseason series?
Yes, John Wall, that is exactly how long it’s been.
When your town doesn’t raise a fuss for that long among chattering hoopheads, people forget about you. They take blowing you out for granted. No second round since 2005 and it’s rebuild purgatory, kids.
So when you do win again, almost every national observer hits the default button your predecessors have wired into their brains. They pick a Chicago team with liabilities, like, not being able to complete a primary objective of the game — scoring! Your Hateraders will never cop to this, but they pick against you expressly because you’re the Wizards, and for them that means even new-and-improved pro basketball players in Washington aren’t supposed to win when it counts.
See, they are playing with house money this series.
The scrutiny and pressure, meanwhile, continues for the Indiana Pacers, the most mentally fragile group of veterans in modern league history, who somehow took an NBA-champion-to-be, 40-11 start to this season and rejected ultimate happiness on the court like Roy Hibbert used to reject shots into Row D.
Other than unsubstantiated gossip about personal problems in the locker room, I don’t know what’s wrong with the Pacers. I do know it’s beyond basketball, and I don’t believe for one minute their seven-game victory over Atlanta somehow became the elixir that’s going to permanently put them back on track to stop yet another HeatPeat.
There’s new blood in the East, new energy, a young-and-old roiling cauldron of talent and ’tude that hits the floor Monday night in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals in Indianapolis.
And it’s not the home team anymore.
Now, okay, because a 44-38 Wizards team that people inside the building feel underachieved a bit in the regular season peaked at the perfect moment against the Bulls, we’ve given everyone’s reputation a facelift. This makeover makes many of the Wizards of a year ago — heck, less than six months ago during an early season swoon in November — unrecognizable now. For example:
Nov.: 2-7 Randy Wittman. More losses in league history than any active coach, not the right guy to take them to the next step. Randy is too old school. Plus, he loses double-digit leads faster than the ’08 Dow.
May: Eastern Conference semifinalist Witt. About time someone realized this man’s head coaching jobs were all recovery missions that had no chance of success. Minute you give a Bob Knight disciple a nice mix of young talent and experience, he’s as solid on the bench as they come. Extend him already.
Nov.: 2-7 Nene. Looks good, especially in street clothes. Love him when he plays, but the big man’s body is more fragile than a soap bubble.
May: Rock in the Middle Who Punked Joakim Noah and the Bulls: What up, you Resilient Brazilian? Got a better midrange game than Karl Malone. He’s a point center, figuring out angles and trajectories until he’s pick-and-popped you to death. Hibbert wants no part of Nene. Hell, The Hulk wants no part of Nene. He’s not just country strong; he’s continent strong.
2-7, No Playoffs Since 2008 Ernie Grunfeld: Nov.: No Playoffs Since 2008 Ernie: What other front-office executive gets to keep his job after the public implosion of a franchise, co-authored by a creaky-kneed star he signed for $100 million-plus? Oh, and Jan Vesely at No. 6. Really, Ernie? We could have had Kenneth Faried or Chandler Parsons. Shoot, we would have taken Jan Stenerud.
May: Eastern Conference Semifinalist Ernie. After saving Ted Leonsis almost $100 million during a reputation-swallowing rebuild, the ErnDog showed he stills knows how to build a contender. No other GM observes Earth Day like Ernie, who is able to recycle trash into Trevor Ariza. Getting Marcin Gortat for Emeka Okafor before the season . . . brilliant. Andre Miller as a rent-a-vet? Solid. Oh, and who knew he had another year left on his deal after this season that no one knew about until now (That’s right, a little news for you.)
Nov.: Owner of Oversold Verizon Center Teams: Thanks for getting our hopes up about the Caps. Thanks for writing so eloquently about how bad we will be for the next five years so we can be really good the next five years after that. Thanks for nothing.
May: Patient, Never-Panic Guy Who Stood Behind Job Ernie Was Doing When Everyone Wanted His Head: We’re back, baby! Thank you! Thank you! I see you rocking that Nene jersey.
Nov.: Longtime Verizon Center Usher: Poor woman, had to watch JaVale McGee run the wrong way on defense just to pay the bills.
May: Second-Round Playoff Usher: Girl, is that blue uniform new? You got extra tickets?
The point is, all this hype over becoming one of the final eight teams left in the NBA playoffs for the first time in nine seasons might be a little embellished, just as we embellished how bad the Wizards were during the lean times.
But the fact is, they are back. Unlike the Pacers, their off-court baggage can fit into the overhead compartment on the flight to Indiana. They have trust, talent, the best back court remaining this postseason and all the ingredients to go further.
Wall and Beal never made it to the Final Four during their one season each of college basketball. But here’s saying they don’t have to wait another year to get to the final four of the NBA playoffs, that a stranger to the second round goes back to the Eastern Conference finals for the first time since Wes and the Big E in 1979.
Wizards over Pacers in six. “Book” it.
For more by Mike Wise, go to washingtonpost.com/wise.