INDIANAPOLIS — Preferring to focus on the team, Washington Wizards Coach Randy Wittman politely brushed off reporters’ questions Monday about his triumphant return home in the NBA playoffs. But what the Indianapolis native has accomplished this season deserves attention.
Wittman and the Wizards’ impressive postseason run continued Monday with a 102-96 victory over the Indiana Pacers in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, Washington’s seventh straight victory away from Verizon Center dating from the regular season. Wittman joined Pat Riley and Mike Dunleavy as the only coaches in league history to win their first four road games in the postseason. That’s good company.
The Wizards, who tied for the top road record in the East during the regular season, have maintained that success in the playoffs. No matter where they play, the Wizards believe they should win. You can guess who taught them to think that way.
“Belief and confidence,” Wittman said in explaining what has enabled the Wizards to thrive in hostile environments. “You’ve got to believe you can go into any arena and win.
“Talent gives you an opportunity. Belief in doing it gets you over the top. That’s the main thing: the mental standpoint.”
Wittman is sharp with X’s and O’s, but there are only so many ways to approach pick-and-roll defense. What separates coaches in the NBA is the ability to persuade players to commit to a style of play.
Wittman’s biggest supporters say the Wizards’ all-out effort on defense is all about their belief in their coach. It’s pretty simple, forward Trevor Ariza said.
“When you have a coach you like, you’re willing to run through a wall for him,” said Ariza, who made all six of his three-point attempts in a sensational Game 1 performance.
“Randy encourages you. He’s also going to get on you. If you’re not playing your best, or not doing the things you need to do to help this team, he’ll let you know about it. Randy is going to challenge you.”
Point guard John Wall has been there. Wittman challenged Wall to show as much interest in guarding opponents as he does in speeding past them with the ball. These days, when Wall speaks about what’s most important to him on the court, he sounds a lot like Wittman.
“Don’t worry about the offense,” Wall said. “Play defense, hit those [opponents] first and don’t [commit turnovers]. But it has to start with defense.”
Virtually nothing is as important to the Wizards’ present and future as the development of Wall, whom the Wizards signed to a five-year, $80 million contract this past offseason. Wittman is teaching him the right way to play. Wittman’s college teammate, Hall of Fame point guard Isiah Thomas, has watched the Wizards’ playmaker steadily improve under his longtime friend.
“When I look at John, I see a guy who, instead of just playing on his talent, now understands, time, tempo and score,” Thomas said during a telephone interview. “He’s reading game situations. He’s making other players around him better with his decision-making.
“He has become a very unselfish leader. Many times, with young guys, they play only for the stat sheet. They play only [to appear in highlights on ESPN’s] SportsCenter. I can see the effect Randy has had on John. He’s not playing for stats; he’s playing to win.”
The Wittman-Wall relationship is one of trust. Wall “understands . . . what I want,” Wittman said. And Wall’s ability to deliver it has helped fuel the Wizards’ rise under Wittman.
Not too long ago, many in the league doubted Wittman was the right man for the Wizards’ job — or any other. In the regular season, Wittman has a career mark of 191-329 (.367). That’s the worst winning percentage of the 90 coaches with at least 400 career games. In two-plus seasons in Washington, Wittman is just 91-122.
It’s funny how much Wittman improved as a coach once he had more talented players to work with. The combination of team President Ernie Grunfeld’s roster moves, Wittman’s coaching and the players’ performance has produced the franchise’s first playoff appearance in six seasons and its first postseason series victory in nine seasons. And the Wizards show no signs of slowing down against the conference’s top seed.
Wittman was too busy preparing for the Pacers to spend much time with his family members in Indianapolis, but they all understood he has a job to do. As the rest of the NBA is learning, it’s one he’s capable of doing quite well.
For more by Jason Reid, visit washingtonpost.com/reid.