- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 13, 2017

Crammed into an alley off U Street, security held a small crowd back from John Wall and Bradley Beal on Thursday around lunchtime. Two Wizards cheerleaders stood against a wall and G-Wiz, the team’s puffy blue mascot, soothed a busy-body Golden Retriever who came with her owner.

A temporary vinyl mural of Wall and Beal stretched up the two-story building behind them to pump the coming postseason. Washington opens the playoffs Sunday in a town wanting for postseason success. No Washington team among the big four pro sports has won a championship since the 1991 Washington Redskins. No one in that group has been to a conference final since the Capitals made it to the Stanley Cup Finals in the 1997-98 season.

“Really?” Beal said. “Not even the Caps?”

He thought about it for a second while people clicked pictures of him standing in a grimy alley, fatigued from a lengthy regular season that just ended with a plane ride home from Miami the night before. Wall and Beal are operating in a city that anticipates postseason downfalls. In the shadow of their vinyl likeness, they thought about the legacy of sports losing in America’s power center. Can they break it? Will they be swallowed by it? Damnation can’t be eternal, can it?

Both Wall and Beal will be here for years. Wall has two years to go on his contract, and if the Wizards want to be ambitious, a new clause in the collective bargaining agreement could extend his contract before he considers free agency after the 2019 season. Beal signed a $127 million contract last summer. That cost makes him entrenched in Washington sports lore no matter the results.

“Man, we owe this city,” Beal said. “That’s what goes through my mind. We definitely have to do whatever it takes to get some type of championship or success back in the city. Not even just for them, but for our organization. We hadn’t won our division in a long time. We made some strides, we accomplished some goals, but we still have a lot to prove and a good opportunity to do it.”

The 49-win, Southeast Division champions open Sunday at home versus the Atlanta Hawks, a team responsible for extending the District’s conference finals drought. In 2015, Wall landed on his wrist in Atlanta late in Game 1. Washington seemed poised to at least give the top-seeded Hawks a full seven-game series, if not beat them prior. Wall’s tumble caused five fractures in his hand. He missed three games, yet the chances persisted before he returned.

“Hurt,” Beal said of how he felt afterward. “Heartbroken. I felt like it was a tough series we lost. We felt like it was one we should have won, regardless if John was hurt or not. We felt we still had an opportunity to beat them.”

“Brad stepped up his game and played very well, 25 and 7 assists,” Wall said. “[I] remember Game 5, we get a block and [are] one rebound away from going up 3-2 and coming home for Game 6. I remember all that. Paul Pierce saying, ‘I called game’ banking his shot in, me running on the court like I wasn’t injured. I remember all that.”

Pierce was team evangelist then. In the first round, he sent ripples through the entire city of Toronto with his play and mouth. Pierce scored 20 points in the opener at Toronto. With 16.3 seconds to play in Game 3 in Washington, Pierce hit a 3-pointer to vault the Wizards’ lead to six. Toronto called timeout. Pierce pivoted and yelled, “That’s why I’m here!” His bravado sent Canada’s largest city into a tizzy. Back pages of Toronto’s tabloids labeled him an enemy of the state.

Pierce is gone and last season was populated with veteran players on one-year contracts. Only four players remain on the Wizards roster who played against Atlanta in the 2015 Eastern Conference semifinals: Wall, Beal, Otto Porter and Marcin Gortat, meaning the team has never been more in the hands of its backcourt.

Wall made his fourth consecutive All-Star Game this season. Beal was narrowly left off during his best season. He achieved one goal: Beal’s 77 games were a career high. He was able to minimize injury for the first time since 2014 and just the second time in his career. He also further developed his game to help bolster his claim that him and Wall are the league’s best backcourt, despite it still not being true.

“It’s really going to come down to how well me and Brad are playing,” Wall said.

Wall and Beal were swept out of the alley as one onlooker yelled to them not to forget about him. The duo wonders if they can turn a dormant basketball town into an upbeat one, flipping a fan base that has waded through extended disappointment with an Arenas blip here, a too-short-playoff run there. They are aware the District is a Redskins-first place. They share a building with the top regular-season team in hockey two years running. The Nationals are again contenders. That leaves the Wizards’ anchors jockeying for eyeballs, ears and cheers of their own.

“We want to be the first team to bring a championship here,” Wall said. “People think it’s a longshot, but anything can happen in this league. The way the East is, we feel like it’s open this season. If we just stay healthy, we just play the way we’ve been playing this season and play defense at a high level, anything can happen.”

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