From the flood of positive comments in passing to the row of extra cameras zoomed in on their faces after Thursday’s practice, the Washington Wizards have been greeted like kings — champions even — since returning to the D.C. area with a 2-0 lead on Chicago in their Eastern Conference first-round playoff series.
The reason behind the hype isn’t lost on these Wizards, they of decided underdog status before turning the tables with two gritty wins in Chicago. But Washington’s players and coach would rather remain under the radar and perhaps underappreciated for the time being.
“Everywhere you go, fans saying what a good job you’ve done,” Wizards swingman Trevor Ariza said. “I just respond by saying ‘We haven’t finished yet. There’s still more work to be done.'”
“There was probably people saying they didn’t think we had a chance. Now everybody is saying how great we are,” Wizards Coach Randy Wittman said. “You can’t read into that. You read into the first one, saying you ain’t worth a crap, you’re going to believe that. Now, you believe you’re the best thing since sliced bread, now you’re in trouble.
“We haven’t done anything,” Wittman continued. “You’ve got to win four games and we’ve only won two. That means there’s two still out there and until you get that, you haven’t accomplished anything yet.”
Ted Leonsis also took a cautious approach in his blog Wednesday, writing: “In the playoffs; one of our teams [the Washington Capitals] was once up 2 to 0 with two wins on the road and lost the series. That lesson can’t be lost on any one. It isn’t lost on me.”
The last time Washington hosted a playoff game was May 2, 2008, when the Cleveland Cavaliers closed out the first-round series with a 105-88 rout of the Wizards. The nearly six-year drought and playoff atmosphere will make for a sellout crowd for Friday’s Game 3, with every fan given a white, red or blue shirt depending on their seat.
Once the ball is tipped, it’ll be up to the Wizards to not only defend their 2-0 series lead but also shake off their regular season woes at Verizon Center. At 22-19, Washington had the worst home record among playoff teams. Of those 41 games, only four were sellouts. The Wizards won all four of those contests against Oklahoma City, Miami (twice) and Brooklyn while going 18-19 in the other home games.
“We have a good record on the road, but at home, we need to pay attention a little bit more,” said Nene, who is averaging a team-high 20.5 points in the playoffs. “Both teams have pressure, both teams want to win, both teams going to fight for the game. We need to be prepared.”
Adjustments are sure to come from Chicago on Friday, as cold shooting and uncharacteristic defensive breakdowns have doomed the Bulls against the Wizards, who have displayed a resilience and depth in their 10-man rotation.
But Washington will also look to elevate its play in certain areas such as rebounding. The Wizards lost the battle on the offensive glass by a count of 17-8 in Game 2.
“Offensive rebounding has really hurt us,” Wittman said. “Defensive rebounding is big and in order for us to keep our pace at the pace we want, we have to do that. If we take the ball out of bounds all the time, this team is too good when they get their defense set.”
The Wizards hope that having the home crowd behind them can help neutralize Chicago’s catalysts off the bench in Taj Gibson (six offensive rebounds per game) and D.J. Augustin (20.5 points). But in the moments leading up to Friday’s prime-time contest, the Wizards plan on blocking out the outside noise and focus on the next task at hand.
“If you’re thinking sweep and lose Game 3, now you’re in a bind,” Wizards guard John Wall said. “The main thing is to come in and win the most important game of the season and that’s Game 3 right now.”