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