Since the Washington Wizards took care of business rather early by winning their first-round series against the Chicago Bulls in five games, the basketball world has had some time to digest what just happened.
The Wizards handed the Bulls–yes, those Bulls that everyone was told to avoid in the postseason–the series loss by making it look easy. Washington’s offense was too quick, too consistent, and too spread out for the hard-nosed, defensive Bulls to handle. On the other hand, the Wizards’ defensive execution was as good as you could ask for. And it didn’t hurt that Chicago’s offense was quite stagnate and inconsistent throughout the series.
The first-round series win was a rare one for the team out of our nation’s capital since it marked only the franchise’s third playoff series win in more than three decades. However, their impressive performance begs the question: are the Wizards better than advertised? The answer is simple: yes.
What is further intriguing is that Washington is favored to add another series win to the franchise history in the second round and will find themselves in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Still not sold? Let’s take a look at why the Wizards will land in the Eastern Conference Finals later this month.
Let’s start by discussing how impressive the Wizards played in the first round against Chicago. For about a year, there have been conversations in the basketball community about just how good the Wizards’ young backcourt could potentially be in the near future. I even stated in a recent article that their success against the Bulls would most likely come down to Bradley Beal and whether or not he would make “the leap” in this series. Well, in the first round the “House of Guards” led the charge for their teammates and knocked out Chicago before they really even had a chance.
Beal put up better numbers in just about every statistical category in his first five games of the 2014 NBA Playoffs than his regular season averages. In the first round, the 20-year-old sophomore averaged 19.8 points, 4.2 assists and 4.6 rebounds on 44 percent shooting from the field and 45.5 percent shooting from downtown in 41 minutes. He shot a 50.7 effective field goal percentage in the first round, which reflects his efficiency at the three-point line in the postseason so far.
The other weapon in the Wizards’ backcourt tandem is John Wall. Wall is coming off his best regular season, and he’s continued to impress the masses in the NBA Playoffs. Wall has quickly emerged as the leader whose mission is to change the disappointing narrative that has lingered around the team for too long. The Wizards believed Wall was the one to not only be the face of the franchise, but the engine to drive that change too, and therefore invested a max contract in the 23-year-old last summer. Wall is worth every cent.
There is no question the Wizards’ offense starts with Wall. Whether it ends with a dazzling drive to the bucket, a penetrate and kick-out pass to a wing on the perimeter, a pick-and-roll, or a setup for a play in the post, the ball goes through Wall’s hands. In fact, he averaged 92 touches per game in the five contests against Chicago, which ranked in the top ten among all players in first round action. Additionally, 16.4 points were created by Wall’s dimes per game, which again ranks well in the top ten in first round play. While his shooting efficiency struggled (36.4 percent from the field, 27.3 percent from distance), it is an undeniable fact that Wall found a way to be effective through his drives (18.8 points overall), playmaking (6.8 assists) and defense (2.2 steals).
While the “House of Guards” led the charge against the Bulls, their frontcourt of Marcin Gortat and Nene provided artillery support on the inside. The main threat that the Wizards faced against Chicago was the inside presence on both ends of the court of Carlos Boozer and 2014 Defensive Player of the Year Joakim Noah. However, that threat never came to life, as Gortat and Nene contained and simply outplayed them.
Gortat provided the muscle on the inside, as his main responsibility is to clean up the glass and defend the rim. He is also a solid pick-and-roll player, which can be accredited to his tutelage of playing the pick-and-roll game with Steve Nash in Phoenix. While his shooting efficiency dipped a bit–credit has to go to Chicago’s inside defense–the stats that indicate he is having an impact are his rebounding and blocks averages. With that said, in the first round he posted 9.6 boards and 2.0 blocks per game. Add his 10.8 PPG, and he had quite a solid first round.
As for Nene, his performance in the first round proved that while he isn’t Washington’s best player, he is their most important player. Throughout his playoff appearances with the Denver Nuggets earlier in his career, Nene was plagued with inconsistency. The 31-year-old veteran had a superb first-round series, averaging 17.8 points, 6.5 boards and 3.3 dimes on 54.8 percent shooting. Despite his unnecessary actions in Game 3 that resulted in a Game 4 suspension, Nene’s abilities in the midrange and post (first round shot chart below) proved to be a challenge Boozer and Noah could not win.
During the first round, Wizards head coach Randy Wittman talked to the media about Nene’s impact: “It was all his intangibles. I use that word for Nene all the time. He can score, he can shoot, he can post, he can dribble, he can pass and he can defend. When he is not there, we cannot put one guy in there who has all those things. Having him back gave us a good comfort level.”
Then there is Trevor Ariza, who is turning into the X-factor for the Wizards. Ariza has been surging lately and is playing like the Ariza from the 2009 Playoffs, when the Lakers went all the way in the postseason. He has the playoff experience to recognize where the team needs to be helped the most. If scoring is lagging, Ariza will pick up his aggressiveness to get to the rim or get in position for catch-and-shoot opportunities. If the ball becomes stuck, he creates ball movement. If he sees that his teammate is struggling to stay in front of his assignment, he will voluntarily switch with him on defense.
John Wall and Ariza have perfected their two-man game over the season. Wall penetrates to draw in the defense, then kicks it out to Ariza in the corner. In fact, Ariza made the most corner threes (78) this season in the NBA, of which 68 percent were assisted by Wall. In the first round, Ariza averaged two catch-and-shoot three-pointers per game. Overall, he posted 15.6 points and 8.6 rebounds per game on 49.1 percent shooting from the field and a staggering 46.4 percent 3-point shooting.