Washington Wizards might be facing the end of a great ride in NBA playoffs

Jason Reid
Columnist May 11

We have been there from the start, have watched them grow and are eager to see what happens next. The Washington Wizards have our attention.

And even if the Wizards played their final home game of the season Sunday night in a 95-92 loss to the Indiana Pacers, what a season it was.

Jason Reid is a sports columnist with the Washington Post. He joined the Post’s Redskins team in 2007 after 15 years covering many beats at the Los Angeles Times. View Archive

Of course, the Wizards have at least one more game. They will face the Pacers on Tuesday night in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals on the Pacers’ home turf. “We know what we have to do,” Wizards Coach Randy Wittman gamely said after Game 5. “We’ve played them four times. There aren’t any secrets. . . . Three of the four games have been dogfights. We’re in the fight. Now we’ve just got to win that fight.”

The reality is, though, that by rallying from a 19-point second-half deficit, the Pacers may have turned out the lights at Verizon Center. In NBA playoff history, only eight teams have advanced after facing a 3-1 deficit in a seven-game series.

And the Wizards are going down in ugly fashion. After winning the series opener in Indianapolis, they have lost three straight. With one more defeat, the Wizards will spend the summer wondering about what could have been.

But believe this: A lot of good things happened for a team that was a punch line not long ago.

Point guard John Wall became an all-star and proved wrong his doubters — a list I was high on. Bradley Beal continued his ascent to superstardom. Trevor Ariza reignited his career. Just before the season started, Marcin Gortat arrived in a trade and provided a “Polish Hammer.” Inspired by his affable fellow big man, Nene went all-in. The Wizards defeated the Chicago Bulls in the first round. A team in the District winning a playoff series is as rare as the Redskins playing meaningful games in December.

On Sunday, Beal scored 20 points on 7-for-14 shooting. He didn’t resemble the guy who missed 13 of 19 field goal attempts in his previous outing. Aggressive from the start, Beal was sharp in the Wizards’ big second quarter, when they appeared to take command.

Beal’s jumper returned at the right time for the Wizards, who had a 17-point halftime lead and another sellout crowd at Verizon Center totally on their side. The only thing that could please Wizards officials more than the sight of Beal burning the Pacers’ defense from the perimeter was Wall on his signature one-man fast breaks. He had a couple of those, too.

Wall’s electrifying end-to-end sprint barely beat the first-half buzzer. His layup sent the crowd into a frenzy and the Wizards into the locker room at halftime smiling. Unfortunately for the Wizards, they failed to maintain the good look.

“We didn’t come out with any intensity in the third quarter” on defense, Wittman said. “We allowed them to get going. You work the whole first half to build a [big lead], and then you give it all away.”

There’s no way to sugarcoat this: Wall has played poorly at the most important time of the year. The Wizards’ only all-star must set the tone. If he isn’t shooting well or scoring, Wall has to set a fast pace. That’s the way Wittman wants the Wizards to play. He trusts Wall to make it happen.

“It’s a process,” Wittman said. “He’s just got to continue to stay aggressive. That’s my main thing. That’s who he is. . . . He can’t worry about anything else.”

In losing the previous two games in the series, the Pacers dictated the pace. That’s on Wall.

Although Wall continued to lay bricks in Game 4, missing 7 of 11 shots, and again made too many mistakes, committing five turnovers, he pushed the ball and forced the Pacers to react. Once the Pacers pushed back, Wall and the Wizards weren’t up to the challenge. The Wizards played best when backup point guard Andre Miller directed the offense and Wall observed from the bench.

When Wall takes off, he energizes his teammates and the crowd. They feed off him. As long as Wall’s motor is running, he can help the team.

The Wizards defeated the Bulls in the opening round in part because Wall was relentless in dictating the pace in the five-game series. In Game 4 against Indiana, Wall showed glimpses of getting it back together. For the Wizards to stave off elimination in Game 5, Wall must roll hard for the entire game.

Same deal with Beal. Wall was the Wizards’ best player this season. Beal may stand atop the roster for many to come.

Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld is a basketball lifer. He has played with great players and against them. Grunfeld has drafted talented guys, acquired some in trades and signed others in free agency. So it’s telling that Grunfeld gets this gleam in his eye when he talks about Beal.

When others look at Beal, they see a smooth 20-year-old player who isn’t close to reaching his potential. Grunfeld sees a potential megastar. In the Wizards’ basketball operation, the consensus is that Beal will be a pillar of the organization for at least a decade.

It’s not just that Beal is a skilled long-range shooter, possesses a nifty midrange game and is comfortable going to the basket, though that stuff is essential for any aspiring star. Beal also has “it.” In addition to great physical skills, the great ones also possess confidence and smarts. Beal only will get better.

With their young pillars in the back court, the Wizards still have a chance to extend their season in Indianapolis on Tuesday. Let’s not forget that. But if the end comes soon, as history indicates it will, it was a great ride.

For more by Jason Reid, visit washingtonpost.com/reid.

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