BOSTON — The visitors’ locker room was quiet. Its tenants were packing up and preparing for another day. Such is life for the young Washington Wizards in their approach to the postseason — unhappy and yet optimistic.
“When we’re making shots, we’re a great defensive team,” John Wall was saying after the Wizards’ 110-102 loss to the Celtics Monday. “When we’re not making shots, we’ve got to play with that same defensive intensity. We’ve got to figure that out and do that. That’s what we have a problem with at times.”
The Celtics had celebrated the return of Isaiah Thomas (25 points after an absence of two games) by splitting their season series with Washington and increasing their chances of maintaining the No. 2 seed in the East for a potential semifinal-series matchup against the No. 3 Wizards. The Celtics have a home-friendly schedule over the next four weeks; the Wizards, with eight of 12 remaining on the road, will be pushing uphill.
The success of the Celtics is no longer a surprise, even though their best player is Thomas, the 5-foot-9 former No. 60 pick who has turned himself into a two-time All-Star and the NBA’s best closer this season. While Thomas and his Celtics have arrived ahead of schedule, the Wizards were bred for contention. Wall, the All-Star point guard, was a No. 1 overall pick in the 2010 Draft. Bradley Beal, the Wizards’ leading scorer, went No. 3 two years later, and Porter — a leading Most-Improved candidate – was the No. 3 pick in 2013.
But the road to NBA maturity is a winding pass up through the mountains. After winning first-round series in 2014 and again in ’15, the Wizards — injured and demoralized — backslid last year to .500 and missed the playoffs. That negative trend appeared to be snowballing this season amid a 7-13 start by early December. So how is it that the Wizards have managed to go 35-15 since then — with a win total (26) for 2017 that ranks No. 1 in the NBA?
Much of it has to do with the calming presence of new coach Scott Brooks. But there is also something good to be said for the doubts and disappointments the Wizards have endured in recent years — frustrations that may enable their young leaders to play with unexpected maturity in the playoffs next month. “I definitely feel older than 23,” said Beal at the morning shootaround as he looked forward to the game against the Celtics that night. “Everything that we’ve been through the last five years, it definitely puts some years on you.”
“As a player I wasn’t as even-keel as I am now,” said Brooks. “I was up and down with every shot, or everytime someone would score on me. But as a coach I feel like you have to be consistent. In order to have our players be consistent, I have to show that consistent leadership. On the outside I’m looking calm, but there are times inside my stomach is turning upside down.”
“You have to focus on what you do this year, because every season has its own story. We have a chance to do something special.”
Washington Wizards coach Scott Brooks
He was able to keep any doubts hidden away as the Wizards began their recovery in December. “Never too high, never too low,” said Beal of Brooks. “He has a relationship with everybody on the team. He doesn’t show any favoritism, holds everybody accountable for their actions, and he also knows when it’s fun time and when it’s business time.”
It turns out that the Wizards needed soothing. Amid high expectations for a bounce-back year, Wall was struggling to recover from summer surgery on each of his knees as this season began. More worrisome was the three-game November absence of Beal, whose preceding four NBA seasons had been set back by a variety of injuries that had raised questions about his longterm potential.
“It was a challenge just trying to prove to people that you were tough and that you want to be on the floor,” said Beal. “That weighs heavy on a lot of peoples’ minds. You want to go out and provide for your team. You want to be that guy that shows up each and every night, regardless of what ailments you may have.”
And yet Brooks has seen a silver lining running throughout Beal’s early troubles. “Nobody wants to start their career having injuries, but Brad has handled them,” Brooks said. “And there’s no question that he’s mentally tough. You have to be a mentally-tough player to be able to come back from injury like he has — and like John has with his double-knee surgery over the summer.”
“It’s a fine line to distinguish between when you should be smart about them and when you should be tough,” said Beal of his injuries. “It definitely gives you a form of mental toughness that I think you need.
“Nobody knows your body better than you do. Nobody will be more confident or be more happy about your play than you are — or more disappointed. Whenever I come back from an injury, I always feel like I’m better. That’s my mindset. That helps me get over that hump and helps me forget about being injured or the history of injuries.”
Early-season anxieties have given way to career years for the Wizards’ guards. Beal has missed only four games while emerging as the sixth-leading scorer (career-best 23.1 ppg) in the East. He has generated 40 or more points in four games this season, while Wall is the only player in the league averaging at least 20 points, 10 assists, four rebounds and two steals.
And yet Wall is driven by the playoff series his Wizards have lost — more so than by their victories. “We’ve been to the second round twice, and I felt like we should have won both series,” said Wall, who ranks No. 2 in assists (10.8) and steals (2.0) while scoring a career-best 23.0 points this season. “First year it was just inexperience: We didn’t really know how to win and close out games. The second time, I broke my hand.”
The Wizards appeared more than capable of reaching the 2015 conference finals before Wall suffered his injury. That negative experience, in combination with Beal’s setbacks, have inspired the young Wizards to approach next month’s playoffs with the urgency of older stars. “You never know when God gives you that one shot to take off,” said Wall. “You have to take full advantage when the opportunity is there.”
If he and Beal ever happen to forget their lessons, Brooks will be there to tell them another story. How many opportunities were lost to injuries suffered by Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook during Brooks’ run with Oklahoma City? When the opportunity arises — as it is this season in Washington — then it must be embraced as if it may never rise again.
“I have pretty good experience with that thinking,” said Brooks of the need to win now. “It can change with a trade, it can change with injuries. You have to focus on what you do this year, because every season has its own story. We have a chance to do something special.”
Wall and Beal aren’t the only Wizards enjoying their best seasons. Porter, the fourth-year small forward, has broken out as one of the NBA’s leading 3-point shooters (44.5 percent). Center Marcin Gortat is averaging a career-high 11.0 rebounds. Morris is establishing personal-bests in rebounding and 3-point shooting.
February acquisition Bojan Bogdanovic (a career-best 15.3 points for Washington) has emerged as one of the NBA’s highest-scoring reserves since the All-Star break. The Wizards’ bench, which was a source of worry during the rough opening month, has been further strengthened by the arrivals of Jason Smith, Brandon Jennings and Ian Mahinmi, recently recovered from injury.
Wall, Beal, and 23-year-old Porter believe their new coach will continue to hasten their progress. Brooks, an undrafted point guard, has been especially helpful in pointing out that he played a decade in the NBA with little of Wall’s athleticism.
“He’s like, ‘With your speed you settle for too many jump shots — you can get past people, you need to attack a little bit more,’ ” said Wall of his conversations with Brooks. “He uses those types of phrases and quotes, flipping his way into my game and trying to tell me I should be doing something that he wasn’t able to do.”
They share ideas throughout practices, shootarounds and games. “He comes and gives me advice, and I give him advice on situations that I think can help us,” Wall said. “He tells me what I’m not doing right, what I’m doing wrong. When I’m doing good, he will give me a little praise — but then it’s back to, ‘You’re not doing this and not doing that.’ It’s to make me want to do other things and keep getting better throughout the game, or throughout our practice and workout times. This is something I really appreciate, and we have a great bond.”
Along the way, Wall has found himself recognizing new opportunities. When exploiting mismatches, for instance, he is now realizing plays he can create for others. “It might be an opportunity where you can just get back that switch they made and find a shot for another teammate,” he said. “Nine times out of 10 you get a mismatch, you’re thinking the shot is going to be for you. But sometimes it may not be.”
Faced with their difficult closing schedule, the Wizards’ immediate goal is to fend off Toronto for the No. 3 seed. If successful, they could yet be returning to Boston for a Eastern Conference semifinal series in May. But there are worse things than being the underdog. If this season has taught the Wizards anything, it’s that they’ve learned to believe anew in their chances.
Ian Thomsen has covered the NBA since 2000. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here or follow him on Twitter.
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