For about five minutes Saturday, before the Washington Wizards emerged on the court at a deafening Air Canada Centre, Randy Wittman addressed his team. The coach told his players to cherish the moment. He implored them not to assume another postseason opportunity will follow. He pointed to Paul Pierce and reminded the other 14 in uniform that the 17-year veteran’s playoff chances are dwindling.
Pierce said Wittman’s words were inspiring. Bradley Beal said he almost cried. If the Wizards weren’t already locked in for Game 1 against the Toronto Raptors, Wittman’s words ensured they were. His Wizards then did what they’ve grown accustomed to doing in the postseason: They ventured into enemy territory and landed the first punch, staggering their opponent and hushing a capacity crowd.
Washington’s 93-86 win in Game 1 on Saturday was their third straight road victory to open a playoff series — something that hasn’t been accomplished since the 1999 New York Knicks. The opening victory improved their postseason record away from Verizon Center to 6-1 dating from last year, making Wittman, who had coached 520 games before his playoff coaching debut, the first coach in league history to open with such postseason success.
Tuesday night’s Game 2 presents an opportunity to seize a commanding 2-0 advantage before returning home, something Pierce acknowledged he has accomplished just once in his previous 11 playoff appearances.
“You can’t get relaxed now because you got one game,” said Pierce, who scored a game-high 20 points Saturday and has experienced the postseason with three franchises. “It’s about having that greedy attitude, that selfish attitude that ‘Hey, we’re trying to get this next game also.’ When you can get two games on the road at another opponent who has home-court advantage, it really breaks their back.”
The Wizards say it is difficult to pinpoint why they have enjoyed this level of road playoff prosperity. Last year, they were as successful away from Verizon Center as they were in it during the regular season, posting identical 23-19 records.
But the Wizards were substantially better in the District this season — 29-12, compared to just 17-24 on the road. They went 80 days without beating a team with a winning record outside of Verizon Center during the regular season, a drought that concluded April 4 with a triumph over the Memphis Grizzlies, and lost both times they visited Canada during the regular season.
“I don’t know what you credit it to,” Beal conceded. “I think our focus level increases on the road and I think we realize that everybody’s against us. No one wants to see us win and we strive in those adverse times when crowds are loud and they go on runs and we’re able to stick together. That helps bring us together and lock in on what we need to do.”
How the Wizards won Saturday rendered the accomplishment all the more impressive. Their two leading scorers — Beal and John Wall — combined for 26 points on an abysmal 11-for-41 shooting. Beal and Wall also scuffled in their playoff debuts last year, when they teamed up for 29 points on 7-for-25 shooting in Game 1 against the Chicago Bulls and admitted nerves were a factor. Such a display is unlikely to repeat Tuesday, but neither is the awful performance from their back-court counterparts, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, who combined to shoot 8 for 30.
“I wasn’t really nervous this time,” insisted Wall, who missed 13 of 18 field goal attempts. “Last year it was because it was my first time and we didn’t play on [national] TV in so long. It was fun. I was ready to get it going. I wasn’t really nervous. I think both teams looked nervous because we couldn’t make any shots.”
Instead, the Wizards prevailed because of timely offensive contributions from a strong supporting cast, led by Pierce, and stingy defense. They limited the potent Raptors offense to 38 percent shooting from the field and 18 points below their regular season average, and outrebounded Toronto, 61-48. They reckon such defensive prowess, their staple, transfers seamlessly to hostile environments and nullifies offensive shortcomings. Of course, some offense wouldn’t hurt.
“We’re going to have to play better than we did in Game 1,” Wittman said. “No question about it.”
The two-day respite between Games 1 and 2 should serve as an advantage for the Wizards, the older of the two teams. They returned to the District during the break, capitalizing on the time to sleep in their own beds and revert to usual routines. They flew back to Toronto on Monday afternoon, understanding the challenge that awaits.
“Like we did last year, we have to view as zero-zero [series],” Beal said. “We have to view it like we’re down one and play desperate and play with that chip and that hunger.”