The Washington Wizards have been led back to the playoffs by John Wall, their dynamic all-star point guard. Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas once was one, too.
And just like Wall emerged as the most important player in the revival of the Wizards — they face the Chicago Bulls on Sunday in the franchise’s first playoff series in six seasons — Thomas played the biggest role in the Detroit Pistons’ rise in the 1980s. Wall, who says his ultimate goal is to help the team win a championship, hopes to reach the top of the sport as Thomas did while winning two NBA titles.
For Wall to get there, he’ll need a lot of help. Thomas has some pointers. The postseason will be unlike anything Wall has experienced, Thomas said, and you have to prepare the right way. That was Thomas’s main takeaway after his first taste of the playoffs.
Thomas was in his third season in the league when the Pistons, who had missed the playoffs six straight seasons, qualified for the postseason in 1984. With more at stake in the playoffs, Thomas expected the competition to be tougher, “but the thing I didn’t expect was the level of preparation,” he said during a recent telephone interview. “During the regular season, there’s only so much prep work. . . . In the playoffs, you’re basically bombarded with information about the opponent.”
Home games, road games, practice, travel — the drumbeat of an 82-game schedule remains constant. There just isn’t the opportunity for a granular approach to things. But in the playoffs, teams have more time to focus on opponents they’ll face for at least four straight games in best-of-seven series. Scouting reports become more detailed and practice reps more frequent as coaches review everything from playing pick-and-roll defense to the proper angles on passes in half-court sets.
On Wednesday, the Wizards, seeded fifth in the Eastern Conference, learned they will play the fourth-seeded Bulls. Until the Wizards’ season ends, Wall must work overtime, Thomas said.
“There’s 24 hours in a day. He’s got to spend hours watching film, studying,” the 1989-90 NBA Finals MVP said. “You’ve got to know the opponent. And I’m not talking about one-, two-hour film sessions with the coach. It should be a 14-hour day for you.”
Although Thomas shined in his first postseason test and averaged 21.4 points, 11.0 assists and 2.6 steals, the Pistons were eliminated by the Bernard King-led New York Knicks in a decisive fifth game. King averaged 42.6 points in the series. As he watched King dominate Detroit, Thomas learned the intensity of the postseason was even greater than he envisioned.
“The level of play went from 100 to 150,” Thomas said. “During the course of the regular season, you can get away with a mistake here or there. Mistakes you made [in the playoffs], the other team [often] capitalizes.”
A lot of that has to do with coaching. It’s not only the best players who thrive in the postseason. Many coaches have made their careers during the NBA’s most important time of year. Former Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers Coach Phil Jackson has more championship rings than fingers on which to wear them.
In today’s game, Bulls Coach Tom Thibodeau is widely considered the best defensive tactician. Led by tenacious center Joakim Noah, Chicago is second to none defensively. Wizards Coach Randy Wittman, Thomas’s back-court mate in college, figures to have his hands full.
In the Pistons-Knicks series 30 years ago, Knicks Coach Hubie Brown “took advantage of every mistake,” Thomas said. And most coaches in the playoffs are so sharp “that even if you find a leaky hole and you try to exploit a mismatch,” Thomas continued, “they don’t give you enough time to.”
That’s why strong point guard play becomes even more important in the postseason. In a process in which the first team to four victories will advance, you can’t afford to waste a possession, quarter, half or game. Coaches rely on point guards to keep everything in sync.
Wall has been good in his breakthrough season (better than I ever thought he could be), but he still has too many of those he’s-got-to-get-it-going moments. If Wall is a no-show at times against the Bulls, the Wizards probably can make vacation plans soon.
“At that point guard position, you have to know everybody’s position,” Thomas said. “He’ll have to understand . . . Trevor Ariza’s assignments, [Bradley] Beal’s assignments and Nene’s assignments. And as soon as something is out of whack, you have to be able to fix it out on the court.
“When the other team makes a mistake, you’ve got to figure out how to take advantage of that mistake quickly before they can patch it up. And [sometimes] you don’t have time to call time out. You have to take advantage of it right then and there. . . . You have to be prepared.”
Thomas’s message is clear: Wall needs to get ready for the biggest challenge of his career. That’s some good advice. And for the Wizards’ sake, Wall should follow it.
For more by Jason Reid, visit washingtonpost.com/reid.