Why the Washington Wizards appear to be peaking in NBA playoffs after up-and-down season

John Wall’s game-clinching bounce pass to nowhere was still rolling when he completed an awkward, leaping chest bump with teammate Bradley Beal that would have been executed better had Wall not jumped so high. Wall then strutted off the United Center court, under the shadow of Michael Jordan’s six championship banners, when one stunned Chicago Bulls fan told him the Washington Wizards were “lucky” to claim a 101-99 overtime victory Tuesday and leave town with a two-games-to-none lead in this best-of-seven, first-round series.

Turning over his shoulder to spot the heckler, Wall shouted: “Ain’t no luck!”

The Wizards’ start to their first NBA playoff appearance in six years has been stunning to those who paid little attention until this week — and even to some who followed the team throughout a topsy-turvy season in which Washington needed to make a last-minute push to move up from possibly the seventh seed to the fifth seed in the regular season finale.

The playoff version of the Wizards has displayed sustained focus, discipline and toughness in the crucible of a boisterous building where Chicago claimed the third-most home wins in the Eastern Conference. Those qualities allowed Washington to come back from a 13-point third-quarter deficit in Game 1 and a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit in Game 2.

“We’re a different team. I think we’re a team that learns from our mistakes. We’re learning to play hard and play through everything,” veteran Trevor Ariza said. “I think we’re definitely more locked in. I think that we’re paying more attention to detail in shoot-arounds and practice. We’re talking more. Communication is a big part of being a good team, and [Wall and Beal], they’re maturing — as well as we have veteran players that know the game. We’re playing for something, so that’s it. That’s the goal: to win.”

The Post Sports Live crew offers bold predictions for what will happen when the Wizards take on the Bulls in D.C. for Game 3 of the first-round playoff series. (Post Sports Live/The Washington Post)

Wall admitted earlier this month he thought the Wizards had underachieved during a 44-38 regular season. They let several winnable games slip through their grasp, losing 11 games in which they led by double digits.

“I feel like we could’ve been a 50-win team, to be honest,” Wall said, mentioning a win total that would’ve been good enough to claim the third seed.

But now the Wizards appear to be peaking at the right time. They have gone 21-11 since the all-star break, including the playoffs, and made strides on defense.

The Wizards closed the regular season winning eight of 11 games while allowing 98.1 points per 100 possessions over that span. They have held the Bulls to an average of 92 points in regulation in the first two games of this series, including just 12 total points in the final six minutes of the fourth quarters in Games 1 and 2.

“It’s going be easier even when we show them, when we get back home and show them the tape. When you get six or seven stops in a row and you’re down 10, that’s how you can win the game,” Wizards Coach Randy Wittman said. “It kind of energizes those guys. They take pride in that.”

Ariza, the only member of the Wizards’ roster with an NBA championship ring, likes to describe the 82-game regular season as a training ground for the playoffs. With postseason pop quizzes coming at every turn, the Wizards have come up with the appropriate responses.

Earlier in the year, Wall and Beal felt obligated to rescue the Wizards by going one-on-one when the team hit a rough patch. But in Game 1 the young back-court duo was willing to defer to more effective veterans when they struggled. Chicago got more physical in Game 2, with Ariza trading elbows with Joakim Noah and Beal mixing it up with Kirk Hinrich, but the Wizards didn’t get intimidated or crumble. Beal greeted his confrontation with a grin.

“It’s playoff time now. We’ve grown a lot since early in the season, and I think it showed,” said Trevor Booker, the other Wizards playoff novice getting heavy minutes through the first two games. “People see that we’re for real. We’re healthy right now. We’re at full strength. That makes a big difference.”

The return of Nene, who missed 22 games late in the season because of a sprained left knee, has dramatically changed the outlook of this series because of his commanding physical presence, ornery on-court demeanor and savvy. In Game 1, the Brazilian big man scored a game-high 24 points. In Game 2, he scored six of his 17 points to start overtime and provided other intangibles, such as when he dived to the court late in regulation to force a jump ball.

“We get a lot of attention, me and Brad. Everybody say we probably one of the best young back courts,” Wall said. “But we know Nene is the X-factor to our team. He’s the reason why we go. Coming into this series, with anybody we played, we knew we needed Nene to be there for us, and he’s stepping up big in the first two games.”

The Wizards’ success in Chicago extended their growth this season in road games. They started 3-8 away from Verizon Center but finished the regular season 22-19 to tie with two-time defending champion Miami and Toronto for the best road record in the East. As the longest-tenured player on the roster, Wall has watched the progression from a team that went 19-96 on the road his first three seasons to one that relishes in silencing opposing crowds. He had reason to be upset someone would call this run lucky.

“A lot of things have changed, the organization drafting people, and I think the young guys on the team did a good job of maturing and developing their games,” Wall said. “We also did a great job of adding some veteran guys. The thing I noticed since last year, everybody wanted to compete and win. Everybody had goals of wanting to get better and competing and playing with one goal.”

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