The Washington Wizards either stomped the corpse of an imitator that really didn’t have “It,” rediscovered the magic of the early season or transformed into something more potent, more fearsome. That will be determined over the next few weeks, when they face stiffer competition. But until then, the Wizards should take this time to celebrate and appreciate what they became over the course of the first four-game sweep in franchise history.
The funk of two months ago feels like a distant memory after the Wizards found a competent offense to complement an already stout defense. The Wizards tap-danced over the remains of the Toronto Raptors until the very end of a 125-94 win that was easily the most thorough, feel-good victory of the season and clinched a playoff series at Verizon Center for the first time since 2005.
Fans relished in the festivities, chanting “Sweep” in the final minutes as rapper Wale slid up the court with a miniature broom, and they were rewarded with free chicken sandwiches when Raptors forward James Johnson missed two free throws.
After the game, the players in the locker room were relatively subdued. They were moving on but hardly satisfied. The only mild form of bravado could be found against one of the cherry wood cabinets adjacent to the stalls, where a dingy broom rested, signifying the accomplishment.
“Do I get anything for that?” Coach Randy Wittman joked when asked about accomplishing a franchise first. “It doesn’t mean anything.”
The way the Wizards closed out the Raptors went a long way toward supporting a return of the “Why not us?” swagger Paul Pierce brought to the organization when he decided to spend one of the final years of his Hall of Fame career with a team he believed was on the rise.
John Wall toyed with the Raptors, needing only five shots to orchestrate an annihilation, blowing past them with ease, setting up Marcin Gortat with easy layups and finishing with his third consecutive double-double. Gortat brought a powerful interior presence for a second straight game, posting a 21-point, 11-rebound effort. Pierce continued to taunt the Raptors like a neighborhood bully, laughing in their faces after every three-pointer.
Bradley Beal waved goodbye to Raptors all-star point guard Kyle Lowry in the series opener, said the Wizards weren’t punks in the next game and then offered a hint of the team’s current mind-set before scoring a game-high 23 points in the clincher. Asked about what Pierce brought to the organization, Beal said he has been a great mentor and added, “If we want to be holding up that trophy at the end of the year, we have to buy in with him.”
The Wizards haven’t come close to sounding or looking like a team that had serious championship aspirations for a few months. But the past 10 days have brought out a more focused and determined group that was willing to sacrifice statistics and playing time. They were able to adjust to Wittman changing the rotation and unleashing a lethal small-ball lineup. And they weren’t afraid to flaunt their superiority over the Raptors, backing up their big talk with on-court sorcery.
Anyone who saw this coming when the postseason began wouldn’t be genuine. Not when the Wizards finished the regular season going 15-21 down the stretch. Not when they had one road win against a team with a winning record after Jan. 14. Not when Beal was slow to recover from a leg injury and Pierce looked as if he was playing on borrowed time.
“I don’t know if anybody really picked us to beat Toronto in this series, especially without home-court advantage. So to go out there and not only be the underdog but to sweep them, I think it does send a message that, ‘Hey, you can’t take Washington lightly,’ ” Pierce said. “We didn’t show the weaknesses that we showed during the regular season, and that’s a good sign. This is a great time to be playing our best basketball, and if we can continue to play like this, we’re going to be a tough team to beat.”
As Wittman said after the win, the Wizards have no interest in looking back. Not only have they found themselves at the right time, but the landscape in the Eastern Conference has shifted, providing more hope about what they can accomplish.
“We want to get to the Eastern Conference finals,” Wall said.
The Wizards likely will face the top-seeded Atlanta Hawks in the second round, and either the Cleveland Cavaliers or Chicago Bulls will reach the conference finals.
The Hawks dominated the Wizards in the regular season, winning three of four games, but their all-star big men, Al Horford and Paul Millsap, are playing hurt, and the team hasn’t been playing at the same level late in the season.
The Cavaliers entered the postseason as the favorites to emerge from the Eastern Conference but suffered a significant blow to their championship pursuits when Boston Celtics center Kelly Olynyk yanked and eventually dislocated Kevin Love’s left shoulder. Love often seemed to be more luxury than necessity during the regular season, but LeBron James wouldn’t let the organization sacrifice No. 1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins without expecting Love would be an important piece toward going all the way.
The Bulls are still in the process of figuring out exactly what they are as Derrick Rose regains confidence in his right knee.
The Wizards will have plenty of time to rest, with Game 1 of the conference semifinals set to start Sunday at the earliest. Gortat said he probably will lift weights six or seven times, and Beal said he would take 10,000 three-pointers to warm up. Whatever the Wizards do in terms of preparation, they will enter the second round more determined to advance, having learned from the pain of losing to the Indiana Pacers in six games last season.
“I don’t want that feeling again of going home, knowing we should be advancing. My mind-set going into that is we leave no doubt,” Beal said. “We have that mind-set that we’re an elite team in this league, and we’re going to continue to play this way. Winning this series really gives us confidence, but at the same time, we have to stay humble because it’s not over. We still have another tough series up next and another one after that if we advance and then another one. It never stops.”