The enthusiasm bordering on euphoria that flashes across the faces of the Washington Wizards as they prepare to meet the Indiana Pacers on Friday night at Verizon Center is something you expect from one of the hottest surprise teams in sports. The shock, however, is this team’s maturity. A franchise that has stood for feckless futility for 35 years may suddenly be the most adult, accountable pro outfit in town.
In professional team sports, terms like “chemistry” and “commitment to team” are impossible to define. But you can recognize it when you see it, especially if it’s been part of your job all your life to look for it.
Right now, can’t say for how long or with what results, the Wizards have it. And they have it in gobs.
In one of those sentences you hardly believe you are typing, the Wizards — with veterans Marcin Gortat, Nene, Trevor Ariza, Martell Webster, Andre Miller and Drew Gooden, plus suddenly mature John Wall and born-old Bradley Beal — seem like the grown-ups in Washington sports. What happened to 60-loss seasons, locker room disgrace and on-court disarray? They’re not only gone. They’ve been reversed.
No need to dis the Capitals, Nationals and the 3-13 local NFL franchise to praise the Wizards. But all of them ought to take a peek at what’s happening now. This is how teams maximize their ability, play so far beyond expectations that they create new ones only they understand, suddenly talk, behave and believe.
“This is everything I was waiting for,” Wall said. “It comes with time.”
“Nothing is done yet,” said Coach Randy Wittman, understanding that, though this series is tied 1-1, many in the NBA believe the Wizards control it. “But if we play the way we can play, I have great confidence. . . .
“Every game is part of a learning curve of what the playoffs are about — the kind of intensity, physicality, what you can get away with — that’s different than the 82 [game regular season]. You have to experience it to learn it.
“They are going to draw off this to understand why we are good when we are good. No matter where this ends up, I’ll never burn the tape [of these games]. ‘This is when you guys are at your best.’ ”
Most teams seldom get that glimpse of their best collective selves. Or they misplace it under postseason pressure. That might still happen to these Wizards. But they are trying the best of all methods to avoid it. “We’re happy when we win, but we always focus on the ‘Why?’ ” Wittman said. “Why did we beat the Bulls four games to one? Focus, specifically, on how we did it.”
Anything else? “I don’t like underdog,” he said. “I like desperate. Play like a desperate team.”
Of course, by Sunday night after two games at Verizon, the tone of Wizards discussion could be much different. Indiana has played mediocre for months. That is not the same as being mediocre. Let Paul George or David West go off for 30, give Lance Stephenson enough room to rediscover his stroke or let Roy Hibbert post up arm’s length from the hoop and you won’t see mediocre. You may see the team that lost the Eastern Conference finals in seven games last season to the champion Miami Heat, then won 56 games this season.
But the Wizards may prevent that.
Gortat talks about the absolute need for “second, third and fourth effort” in every 24-second possession, “especially on defense.” In fact, through the first seven games of their playoff run, that is exactly the level of effort the Wizards have shown.
Wall arrived at practice Thursday an hour early to work on his shooting after discussing his Game 2 (2 for 13) flaws — “not on balance, not following through” — with his trainer/shooting coach Rob McClanaghan.
In the previous 16 hours, Wall had analyzed tape of every late-game possession of the 86-82 loss in Game 2 and was still raw at one of his decisions. With 2 minutes 30 seconds left, he had jacked up an over-anxious three-pointer instead of “running a play. I’ve got to do a better job.” But he also had found plays he thought he had ruined that were actually “on rhythm,” tolerable.
Wittman said he was “proud of our fight” in the loss, then recited a litany of sins that might sound like a tongue-lashing except that his team hears him and reads from the same page. “We lost our pace,” said Wittman, whose team had only one fast break point. The Wizards allowed the 7-foot-2 Hibbert, hardly a man with a graceful gait, to outrun them down court time after time to establish position close to the basket. The result: 28 points on 10-for-13 shooting. That’s how you give a dead-player-walking new life.
“I ain’t going to talk about him. Next question,” Gortat said of Hibbert, his rival at center. For those fond of statistical irony, the player whose career is “most similar in quality and shape” to Gortat is, yes, Hibbert, according to research at basketball-reference.com.
Then Gortat talked about Hibbert in detail — but called him “they.” “We’ve got to sprint back every time,” Gortat said. “They outran me and Nene [down court]. We can’t let them seal us in the paint. They got inside position. . . . Do your work early [by racing back on defense].”
At the moment, the Wizards are full of charm. The colorful, quotable Gortat describes his chin-strap-beard look as “Abe Lincoln, who else?” Something must be lost in Polish Hammer translation. Did Abe shave his head? The 6-foot-11 center will implore his mates to “give them nothing but take everything.”
But these Wizards, finally, are not about charm or potential or cute quotes. They are about the long, hard work behind the proverb: All things are difficult before they are easy.
Why did the Wizards lose on Wednesday night? “Just the [lack of] will,” Gortat said. “We aren’t exciting — like we’re getting goose bumps how great we play. We know that if tomorrow is a bad game, everybody hates you. Make a simple play. Work hard. Focus, especially on defense.”
How far can a team come, and how quickly? The vets — and the coach — who Wizards GM Ernie Grunfeld has (finally) assembled to surround young talent has made worlds of difference. “John Wall started in a bad environment. He did not have true role models,” Gortat said, contrasting the Wizards teams of “the miserable three-four years in the past” with his exposure to vets like Steve Nash and Grant Hill.
“That was like a nail in the coffin. Now we are on the way to be a very good team,” Gortat said. “That’s necessary for the fans to come back — to live [and die] with the results of the team and enjoy this time with us.”
Enjoy your time with the Wizards — a mature, hard-working, intelligent team that is in the midst of shocking its sport. Truly, anything is possible.
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.
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