There were those candid words from that “grumpy old man” Nene, the players-only meeting after Trevor Ariza and Al Harrington told John Wall he needed to step up to keep the team from splintering, Bradley Beal’s right leg injury and subsequent minutes restriction, and finally Nene’s late-season left knee injury. So many times, the Washington Wizards’ season appeared to be on the verge of collapse, with owner Ted Leonsis’s postseason demands often looking to be in peril.
But as the last few players trickled out of the locker room on Monday and the Wizards closed out the franchise’s best finish in decades, there was an obvious shift in attitude from being a team that would’ve been satisfied with simply making the playoffs in training camp to one extremely disappointed that its run ended in the conference semifinals.
Coach Randy Wittman and Martell Webster were not ready to watch the Indiana Pacers beat the Miami Heat in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals on Sunday. Wall, a basketball junkie, watched but through a much different lens from his previous three seasons in the NBA.
“We felt like we would’ve been playing,” said Wall, who arrived for his exit interview with a haircut and his scraggly beard shaved. “You’re also looking and be like, ‘We can beat these teams.’ That’s all you can think about it.”
That kind of confidence seems surprising, considering where the Wizards were after a home loss on April 9 to the Charlotte Bobcats dropped them to seventh in the East with just four games remaining. At the time, the Wizards were facing the prospect of getting the two-time defending champion Heat or the Pacers in the first round, which would’ve likely meant another first-round exit for an upstart team that hadn’t won a playoff series since 2005.
The season’s final turn occurred when Wall spoke up during a film session. Wittman was breaking down footage of the Wizards’ offensive shortcomings when a frustrated Wall interrupted him and said, “It’s not the offense for us, it’s our defense.”
Wittman, a stickler for defense since replacing Flip Saunders in January 2012, flashed a grin because that was exactly what he wanted to hear.
“That’s the step that we needed to take. And for a player — John, or whoever it is — [to say something], it goes a long way,” Wittman said. “Once we got that turned around, a lot of good things happened.”
The Wizards won their final four games of the regular season, claiming double-digit victories in each, and took advantage of Charlotte’s lone loss and a slide by Brooklyn to claim the fifth seed. They beat the Chicago Bulls in the first round in just five games, winning the series finale, 75-69. They lost to Indiana in six games but the Pacers never scored more than 95 points in any game and won the series despite averaging just 89 points.
With a defensive rating (points per 100 possessions) of 97.4, the Pacers were the only team to perform better than Washington (98.2) this postseason. They were also the only teams in the postseason to have a defensive rating below 100 in the playoffs.
“After that, defense became the focal point,” Harrington said of Wall’s comment. “That’s the reason why we got by Chicago and that’s why we had a chance to win this series, because of our defense. It really just turned up a whole ’nother notch, and focus on the defensive end was through the roof. And I feel if we could find a team that is healthy and in shape that can play with that kind of intensity for 60 games in a season, we’ll be a 50-win team. That’s the type of potential this team had.”
When he felt the team was squandering its potential while stumbling to a 2-7 start, Nene complained about what he believed was some selfish play after a Nov. 13 loss to San Antonio and told the Wizards’ young players to “take their heads out of their butt and play the right way, because I’m getting tired of this.” The comments startled Wall and Beal, who spoke privately with Nene about the situation.
The Wizards went on to have five different players average at least 13 points.
“Most time you need to say the true thing. It doesn’t matter if it’s going to hurt. It was for the team good. Not for me to look good. Someone needed to step and say that thing in that moment. After that, things start change,” Nene said. “I’m the grumpy old guy who just complaining about everything. Yeah, that’s what they say about me. ”
A more vocal Wall, emboldened by his teammates, took some important steps toward becoming a leader. And the healthy, determined Wizards elevated the expectations for the franchise.
“We can only go up from here,” Beal said. “We’ve got to compete and have that swagger that we’re the best team in the East. That’s how we’ve got to start thinking moving forward because we’ve beat the best teams and we’ve shown that we deserve to play at this level.”
Though they weren’t good enough to ultimately defeat the top-seeded Pacers, Wittman said he was most pleased with the Wizards’ resolve in becoming a team that not only made the playoffs but made a statement afterward.
“It was a process of staying the course and keeping the focus of what we need to do and how we needed to do it,” Wittman said. “Looking back, I’m proud of what they were able to accomplish through some ups and downs. I didn’t sense that, after being eliminated, that there was happiness. As the summer wears on, we’ve got to look at the positives of what this year was. Disappointment to me was a good sign. They felt we could’ve done more.”
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