This is uncharted water for the Wizards.
In NBA history only three teams have won the first two games of a best-of-seven playoff series on the road and failed to win it. It’s happened 19 different times.
This is the world that the Wizards now inhabit. On Friday night at Verizon Center, Washington will face the Chicago Bulls, up 2-0 and with a chance to put their first round Eastern Conference series on ice.
But with that comes increased scrutiny from the media, from fans, who in recent years paid far more attention to the Redskins, Nationals and Capitals, all teams that have made the playoffs in recent years. Can a team with a young backcourt and few players with legitimate championship experience handle such prosperity? Or will it give the advantage right back?
“There were probably people saying that we didn’t have a chance and now they’re saying how great we are,” Wizards coach Randy Wittman said. “Whatever. We can’t read into that. You read into the first one, [that] you ain’t worth a [darn], you’re gonna believe that. Now, you believe you’re the best thing since sliced bread, you’re gonna be in trouble.”
The Wizards’ last reached the postseason in 2008. They last won a series in 2005 in six games against the Bulls. Their previous playoff series win came in 1982. Washington hasn’t made it past the second round since 1979. This isn’t an organization that can rely on history to guide it. But the buzz is building now with a sellout crowd expected at Verizon Center.
“We’ll probably be a little nervous playing in front of our home crowd,” shooting guard Bradley Beal said. “I mean, our first playoff game here at home – a different type of atmosphere. Everybody cheering with us instead of against us, but it should be fun at the same time. We should embrace it, use it to our advantage and then hopefully, we can have the same results we had the last two games.”
That’s easier said than done, of course. The Wizards came away with two wins on the road at United Center, but they fell behind by 13 points in the third quarter of Game 1 before rallying for a stunning victory.
On Tuesday in Game 2, Washington was down 10 points with just 6:50 to play and won in overtime. They were hard-fought, emotional victories. It’s also probably not a good idea to give the Bulls that kind of an advantage again.
“We still have better basketball to play,” forward Trevor Ariza said. “It’s just about the opportunity presenting itself. We’ve taken what they’ve given us so far and we’ll continue to do it.”
That starts with defense against the NBA’s least efficient offensive club. That’s helped keep Chicago from pulling away from the Wizards even after building solid cushions. But when the games have tightened, Washington has also suddenly shaken its propensity during the regular season of letting games slip away. It’s as if a light has gone on. And it needs to stay on for Game 3 as the stakes are raised higher and the Bulls fight for their playoff lives.
“We went through the adversity, earlier in the season, of not winning a lot of close games and not knowing how to close them,” Wizards point guard John Wall said. “We would try to go one-on-one, me or Brad, and try to make heroic plays and do it on our own. Now, we’re staying with it as a group - whoever’s hot, whoever’s making the right plays.”
Washington has certainly managed to stay with Chicago, the NBA’s best defensive team, physically. That was in question before the series started and offensive rebounding has still been an issue. But Wittman pointed to the jump ball late in regulation of Game 2 when all five Wizards players dove onto the floor to secure a loose ball and keep the Bulls from gaining possession for a last-second shot. Desperation goes a long way.
“I think there’s been a lot of eyes opened [nationally],” Wittman said. “Obviously, these first two games, the physical nature of it – we didn’t back down, and that’s a great thing. We’ve stepped up our physicality, but it has to continue to stay there.”