Washington Wizards finally know their second-round opponent in the NBA playoffs


Nene is so excited for the second round of the playoffs to begin that he’s had trouble sleeping. “I been taking NyQuil or whatever his name,” he said. “Looks like it’s doing reverse.” (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

Since entering the NBA, John Wall has spent the first weekend in May with his family in Raleigh, N.C., or showing off his latest fashionable ensemble at the Kentucky Derby.

Those plans have been altered considerably with the Washington Wizards making the NBA playoffs for the first time in his career — and then dispatching the Chicago Bulls in five games — but he doesn’t miss the vacation.

“Happy to be in the playoffs,” Wall said Saturday. “I think it’s more important to be playing the sport I love. I’ve done [the Kentucky Derby] two or three or times, so that’s over with for me right now.”

The Wizards waited patiently for the Indiana Pacers to dismiss the Atlanta Hawks in seven games to set up their second-round matchup.

In preparation for Monday’s Game 1 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Coach Randy Wittman has balanced giving his players necessary rest while engaging them in some spirited practices to maintain the competitive edge that has fueled this recent run of success.

Washington has won eight of its past nine games, playing with an urgency that was lacking for much of the regular season. The series win over Chicago confirmed that the Wizards had the talent all along. Reserve swingman Martell Webster believes the team was strengthened by its struggles on the way to a 44-38 regular season record.

“People say this team has a lot of potential to be good down the line. Well, honestly, when you look at the postseason this year that we made it, we have a good opportunity to do some crazy things right now,” Webster said. “I think in our circle we realize that. For us, especially the veterans, we’re not worried about next year. We’re worried about right now. We feel we can do damage right now.

“We’re all playing at a level of play that a lot of people didn’t expect us to do, but we know what we’re capable of doing. It’s the fact that we know we can do something right now is the reason we have that sense of urgency and the reason why we’re playing the way we are.”

Webster believes the rest since Tuesday's series-clinching 75-69 victory over the Bulls will be beneficial because the Pacers will have only one day to shift their focus to Washington. The break has been especially good for Nene, who has worn a brace on his sprained left knee since he returned from a 22-game absence last month. Still, Nene said that like before Game 1 vs. the Bulls, he has had trouble sleeping in anticipation of the next round.

“Maybe I’m getting excited now because we’re going to play Monday no matter what,” Nene said. “Still, I been taking NyQuil or whatever his name. Looks like it’s doing reverse. I just need to take care of myself. The whole team need to take care of themselves, what we need to do, relaxing a little bit, because when the ball goes up, we need to be on.”

Wittman has stressed the importance of not breaking from routine, and for him, that has meant maintaining a low profile away from the court. “I don’t go around. I stay in. I want it to be as routine as possible,” Wittman said. “There’s probably not going to be a lot of people that say, ‘Hey, I saw Coach out.’ My wife does a lot of cooking, so she probably wishes differently. But that’s my routine. How we focused going into the Chicago series has got to be the same.”

When the Wizards started the season 9-9, Marcin Gortat boldly predicted the team would win 50 games. By advancing to the Eastern Conference semifinals for the first time since 2005, the Wizards have won 48 games and would need at least two victories to make Gortat look somewhat prescient. The franchise hasn’t won a game in the second round since 1982, but the Wizards are confident this is the team to end that drought.

“I’m looking for the gentleman who wrote article about me, that I’m stupid,” Gortat said when asked about his 50-win prediction. “Whoever we’re going to play, we still got a big chance to beat them. If we’re going to continue to play hard, if we're going to continue to play so physical, having defensive pressure, each one of us continue to play well, there’s no way they can match with us.”

Wall said the Wizards began to play with more determination after an overtime loss to Charlotte on April 9, which momentarily knocked them to the seventh seed. They closed the regular season with four straight wins to move up to fifth place and haven’t let up since.

“We knew what we needed to do to keep our seeding and get a good spot in the playoffs, and we did that. Luckily, it’s translating into the playoffs right now,” Wall said, adding that the team must maintain the attitude of an underdog.

“You got people that doubt you your whole life, your whole career, and when you have the opportunity to succeed, you don’t pay them no attention. You just keep focusing on what you’re doing as a group and as an individual and try to win basketball games. It’s a different atmosphere. It’s the playoffs. You’re more focused on what you’re doing. Regular season, it don’t matter what you do.”

Michael Lee is the national basketball writer for The Washington Post.
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