An end that felt like the beginning

Columnist May 15, 2014

There were 3 minutes 43 seconds left in Washington’s turnaround season, and all the throaty people who had been teased into believing their team could pull this off moments earlier could see the end coming.

The end of the most enthralling Wizards season in nine years finally arrived Thursday night, the end of the franchise’s deepest playoff run since 1979 — the end of a second-round series against the top seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs, who didn’t behave like it at times but did enough to end the dream for John Wall, Bradley Beal and a group of players who had trouble buying a shot in the final minutes.

Mike Wise is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. View Archive

But none of the Verizon Center crowd, save a few who left, would let them go quietly into the summer. They heard the noise one more time.

Down 14 with 47.2 seconds left, the Wizards looked up into the stands to see no one sitting and everyone clapping. The Indiana Pacers were firmly on their way toward a return date with Miami in the conference finals, but the applause kept growing. And growing.

Then the chants.

The Post Sports Live crew looks at the Wizards' performance in the NBA playoffs and debate what are the expectations for the team in 2015. (Post Sports Live/The Washington Post)

“Let’s Go Wiz-ards! Let’s Go Wiz-ards!”

They kept going, to the point where, for maybe a moment, it didn’t feel like the end.

It felt like the beginning.

“Nobody expected us to be here,” Wall said. “I think a lot of teams respect us now. . . . To have a standing ovation from those fans and see how much they support us and cheer for us. . . . ”

Whatever else can be said about the Wizards’ 93-80 Game 6 loss Thursday night — a physical slog of a contest that featured a rough 12-for-35 combined night from the field from the back-court duo of Wall and Beal — the undeniable fact is this was a very balanced team’s maiden playoff run, and there is no evidence whatsoever to suggest that these Wizards won’t go further and play longer in seasons to come.

Oh, I know, none of that is guaranteed — especially in this town, whose most loyal fans have each had their burned-out graveyard of a heart singed so many times when they thought things were different.

The Nationals were a quarter-inch from the National League Championship Series in 2012, but have only hinted at contention since.

Robert Griffin III, who was bouncing up and down with the Washington area’s gift to hip hop, Wale, woke up the burgundy-and-gold legions two falls ago. But after so much disenchantment and disaster on the field in 2013, everyone is holding their breath for another run next season.

But the Wizards have been especially good at gouging out the soul. Washington fell in love with Gilbert Arenas and, by association, Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison from about 2005 to 2008.

Everyone wanted to believe those Wizards were one player away. But then Gil got stupid, bringing guns to the locker room, and that was about the cruelest way to go out and ruin all the goodwill engendered.

It’s impossible to promise that Wall and Beal are going to remain healthy or Nene will play at least 65 games or even whether Marcin Gortat and Trevor Ariza are certain to be here after free agency this summer.

But the guess here is Ted Leonsis is going to commit financially to Gortat and Ariza, who play so well off Wall, Beal and Nene. The guess here is Wall and Beal aren’t going to regress — in fact, Beal is about to blow up into the next great young shooting guard in this league.

Yes, the Nets will get Brook Lopez back, and the Chicago Bulls will eventually get Derrick Rose back, and things broke incredibly right for the Wizards in the East this season to advance this far.

But this team is also going to be better next year simply because they have a year of invaluable experience under their belt.

Now, to a game they had every opportunity to win midway through the fourth quarter.

When Beal dropped in a laser three-pointer from straightaway with 8:31 remaining, giving the Wizards their first lead since the opening minutes, anything seemed possible.

Game 7 in Indianapolis on Sunday. Game 1 in Miami Tuesday night. Anything.

A Verizon crowd waiting to explode suddenly did just that. Everyone stood for the rest of the way.

When I looked at Boz and J Reid as the building roared and the Pacers called time, I had a thought: On the way to Indy, just pack for South Beach. Just pack as if this team is going to the Eastern Conference finals for the first time in 35 years, to face LeBron James and the two-time champion Heat on Tuesday night in Game 1.

It was turning into that kind of night, in The Series No One Acted Like They Wanted to Win, six games of mostly blown leads, lay-downs at home and blowouts in close-out games.

All they needed was a few defensive stops and some timely baskets and the miraculous comeback from 3-1 down in the series was nearly complete.

Of course, the mental unpacking began soon after. David West hit a crazy fadeaway. Lance Stephenson made a monster layup. And the Pacers’ execution and experience finally paid off. They actually looked like a No. 1 seed in those final minutes, as if they knew they needed to get some rest before Miami if they were going to have a shot at the Heat.

This is very much the series that got away, a series the Wizards did not win a single game on their home floor. It’s also the series Wall persevered and found his game before the series ended.

As a testament to how close this club was, Randy Wittman couldn’t speak when his team entered the locker room after it was over. He lost tears. Wall lost tears. Beal cried. They had a cathartic moment.

“We got into the locker room and coach came in, you could see it before he could say a word,” Wall said. “He was very emotional. All of us were. We knew how far we came.”

Wittman’s club needs work, of course, like, yes, learning to win on their home court. But even the coach could reflect on the good, especially the youthful foundation.

“I could not be more pleased with what they have done,” Wittman said. “Bradley Beal in his two years and John now in his fourth.” Of Wall, he added, “This kid, I think tonight was our 101st game of the year counting exhibition. He did not miss a game. He was there for me for 101 starts. As a coach that means a lot.”

That depth of appreciation could be felt in others outside the locker room Thursday night.

On the last night of the season, rather than look how far they have to go to get to the top of the mountain, those last 47.2 seconds of applause and adulation came from those who instead looked down, toward the valley, to see how far these Wizards had come.

For more by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.

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