It wasn’t shocking the Washington Wizards’ season ended Thursday night in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. The Indiana Pacers appeared quite comfortable while winning three games in the past seven days on Washington’s turf, and they were in charge for most of a 93-80 series-clinching victory. But in a sense, it is surprising the Wizards’ great run has finally ended.
“This loss hurts more than anything . . . just knowing that it all just came to an end,” said Bradley Beal, whose three-pointer gave the Wizards their only lead of the fourth quarter, 74-73, with 8 minutes 31 seconds to play.
“At the same time, nobody really thought we would be this far. For us to actually make it here, and for us to believe in ourselves and make Indiana earn it, we should be proud of ourselves. There’s nothing we should hang our heads about.”
The Wizards stirred so much excitement while reintroducing the District to winning basketball, you figured they could keep it going for a while longer. Or at least you hoped they would. It was that much fun.
Team President Ernie Grunfeld assembled a squad that is talented and professional. Coach Randy Wittman guided it with aplomb. The players bought in. The combination resulted in the type of synergy professional sports teams need to succeed. For the Wizards — finally — it all came together.
Even when the Wizards trailed by 16 points in Game 6, you had the sense they could rally. You wanted to believe that Beal, John Wall, Nene, Marcin Gortat and Trevor Ariza — the group that produced so many great memories this season for Wizards fans — had one more move left. And they did.
The Wizards rallied to take that brief fourth-quarter lead. They were clicking on offense. They regained their toughness on defense. The crowd at Verizon Center was back in the game. It was good stuff.
Then the Pacers shut the door. The Wizards weren’t ready for what happened next. They needed to match the Pacers blow for blow. Instead, the Wizards were knocked out. To say the least, the Pacers closed well.
Unlike in Game 5, the Pacers played as if they cared Thursday. Dominated inside during a blowout loss in a potential close-out game, Indiana was locked in from the start in Game 6. The Pacers attacked the middle of the Wizards’ defense with ease, which was something that hadn’t happened often.
Pacers forward David West said his team knew they would be in a for a battle. “ They’re one of the deepest, more talented teams in the East. We knew we had our hands full,” he said. “We fully expected this to be a tough, grind-out series. They’ve got a good mix of young talent, athletes, bigs.”
Throughout the series, Indiana had used the rough stuff against Beal. Pushing, slapping, pulling on his jersey and shorts — the Pacers tried every underhanded trick against Beal. Coach Frank Vogel and the Pacers wanted to rattle the rising 20-year-old star. For the most part, it was a highly unsuccessful strategy.
Beal had several productive performances in the series. He scored 25 points in Washington’s Game 1 victory on the Pacers’ home court. He contributed 18 points and eight rebounds as the Wizards staved off elimination Tuesday at Indianapolis. Game 6 wasn’t as good for Beal.
Pacers guard Lance Stephenson treated Beal like a piñata. Here’s the worst part: The referees let him. Stephenson took jabs — literally — at Beal every chance he got while driving to the basket. At this late stage of the playoffs, generally, referees ignore things that would draw foul calls in the regular season. The crew working Thursday’s game swallowed their whistles all night.
With Stephenson outplaying Beal on offense and Paul George locking him up on defense, Beal was out of sync in the first half. That’s when the Wizards needed him most. The good thing for the Wizards is that Beal is like a sponge. He’ll grow from the rough stuff the Pacers threw at him — just like he did in overcoming the Chicago Bulls’ nonsense in the first round.
The Wizards also need point guard Wall to keep moving in the right direction. Wall struggled throughout the playoffs. His bounce-back performance in Game 5 was nice. It would have been better if it carried over to Game 6. That didn’t happen.
Wall must continue to work on his jumper. Although he made major strides in that area from last season, the playoffs are totally different than the regular season. The defense is tighter and the pressure is exponentially greater than anything players encounter during an 82-game schedule. Now, Wall has a postseason experience on which to draw. I have no doubts he’ll keep on working to get better. Wall has proven he’s that type of guy.
Let’s be clear: Losing to the Pacers did not ruin the Wizards’ season. The Wizards pushed the East’s No. 1 seed in an all-they-could-handle battle. They showed they’re capable of playing with the conference’s best. An organization that had been wandering in the desert for years no longer is lost.
In one impressive season, the Wizards substantially improved their image throughout the league. “A lot of teams respect us now,” Wall said. “We definitely made Indiana earn it. And [this series gave] us a lot experience to know what it takes to win and compete in close-out games and get to the next level.”
That’s what those who remained until the end late Thursday night seemed to understand. It was a message they conveyed in a standing ovation. Clearly, the Wizards have changed. And that’s definitely a welcome surprise.
For more by Jason Reid, visit washingtonpost.com/reid.