- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The axiom is well-worn and clear: Teams can’t turn good play on when a postseason begins. That’s not how things work. End-of-season momentum matters. Players can’t suddenly be juiced after stumbling through a malaise.

Not so for the Washington Wizards. They careened through March before dropping three out of four to close the regular season. Several starters rested in that final game, but most, other than John Wall, were on the floor against Brooklyn on April 10 for a 37-point loss to the Nets.

After the all-star break, the Wizards were 13-15. They had problems prior to it, too, dipping to a 9-8 January before submerging with a 3-9 February record.
As the Wizards wait for their Eastern Conference semifinals opponent to be determined, it’s worth wondering what happened. After a furious start, sagging middle and dominating playoff series, the season has become three parts.

“I think it was a sense of complacency,” Bradley Beal said. “There was one point in the season where we were 31-15. I think we kind of got too cocky, got ahead of ourselves because we were a top-two team in the East. We felt comfortable. I think that’s exactly what happened.

“We got way too comfortable instead of just being more aggressive and just being the team we were, and things slipped. We started losing a lot of games. I think now, coming into the playoffs, we had a better focus and mentality of what we need to do and getting back to playing the way we know we’re capable of playing.”

The shift against Toronto was dramatic. Washington spread the floor with Paul Pierce moving to power forward and Drew Gooden also playing a larger role. Otto Porter morphed into the player coaches and teammates had been begging him to be. All those pieces were missing for much of the regular season.

There still is no consensus as to why coach Randy Wittman decided to wait on using Pierce at power forward until the playoffs, an arrangement that became a runaway success after happening just four percent of the time in 82 games. Consideration of his minutes seems the most logical explanation. Using Pierce as a small forward and a power forward would have been a quick way to ramp up his playing time in his 17th season. Instead, he averaged a career-low 26.2 minutes.

With logic out of the way, Rasual Butler had another suggestion about Wittman and why he may have held back the lineup.

“He’s clever,” Butler said.

Multiple players explained an 82-game season is a long time to stay sharp. Injuries come and go, as do some players, as does focus. Beal played only 63 games. The backup point guard situation was in flux. Nene needed to rest his large, weary bones. Pierce needed breaks, too.

“After the all-star break, we kind of fell a little bit,” Butler said. “I think over the last month of the season, even when we went through that span of, I think we lost five or six games, we lost to the 76ers, we were starting to do things the right way again and we were starting to get back to our identity, it just wasn’t translating into wins at that time. We needed just to get a little bit more of our mojo and swagger back. But we were doing a lot of good things on the basketball floor and it started then.”

Several numbers were flipped during the Wizards‘ four-game sweep of the Raptors. In the regular season, the Wizards shot 16.8 3-pointers per game, which was 27th in the league. That number has increased to 24.3 during the playoffs, a direct reflection of the spread-out lineup with Pierce or Gooden at power forward.

Washington averaged 98.5 points per game in the regular season, 17th in the league overall. In Game 4 against Toronto, they had 102 points after three quarters. They averaged 110.3 for the series.

The midseason lament of the ball not moving was also wiped out against Toronto. The Wizards ran half as many isolation plays in Game 4 as the Raptors did, according to the NBA’s SportVU player tracking system. In Game 4 alone, the Wizards made 318 passes to Toronto’s 268. This was an area where advanced tracking agreed with the simplistic eye test. Toronto played one-on-one, the Wizards shared and they finished with candy at the end because of it.

Distributing from the head table was Wall. He averaged 12.5 assists to just 3.3 turnovers in the series. Each were improvements over the regular season of 10 assists and 3.8 turnovers.

“I think John has put his superstar cap on,” Pierce said. “I always say this is where the stars of the NBA become superstars, in the playoffs. I think this is where they are born. I think that’s what you’re seeing with John Wall right now.”

There was also no evidence that playing the Raptors deserved anything but heavy consideration. The season sweep by Toronto, Gooden said, had the Wizards‘ “antennas up.” They knew the series started on the road after their mediocre second half let homecourt advantage slip away. Toronto was also one of the league’s dynamic scoring teams.

“It was something that was really on our minds,” Gooden said.

On Monday, the Wizards relaxed. Toronto had its season-ending press conferences. The top-seeded Atlanta Hawks lost Game 4 to Brooklyn, squaring their series at 2-2 and still not providing the Wizards with an answer about their next opponent. The Chicago Bulls, up 3-2, lost again to the Milwaukee Bucks. Those series have turned into slogs.

On Tuesday, the Wizards practiced “dummy offense” before heading home to watch other teams. Ten days after opening the playoffs with a lunchtime start in Toronto, the Wizards had morphed into an eyebrow-raising force. If it will last is unknown, but that something changed is clear.

“I was one of the guys to first admit we kind of had it on cruise control after the all-star break,” Gooden said. “Kind of waiting for the playoffs to start and a lot of teams say you guys can’t turn it on and off like that, but I guess we showed that we could, because we did kind of turn it off and put it on cruise control before the playoffs and once we step foot Game 1, we turned it up a notch. Game 2, we came back to D.C. up 2-0. I guess we can turn it on and off.”

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