WASHINGTON — The NBA playoffs are set to begin on Sunday for the Wizards, who have crashed the postseason party for the third time in four years.
The previous two appearances landed Washington in the second round, where it lost in six games both times. The 2014-15 season ended against the Atlanta Hawks in a series Wizards guard Bradley Beal says still leaves the team “salty.”
Washington has a chance to avenge that loss and more over the next two weeks as the No. 4 seed has home-court advantage against the No. 5-seed Hawks. Some national prognosticators believe the Wizards are good enough to make it all the way to the NBA finals. That hasn’t happened since 1979 so it’s a little ambitious. But there are reasons to be optimistic. Here are five reasons that long drought could finally end:
An advantageous first-round series
The Wizards finished the regular season 49-43 and are favored to advance over Atlanta (43-39). It doesn’t hurt that they beat the Hawks three times in four tries in 2016-17 and took the Southeast Division title. Atlanta has a few holdovers from that 2015 series and forward Paul Millsap is relentless with 18.1 points per game and 7.7 rebounds per game. Look out for shooting Tim Hardaway, Jr., who has had a breakout season and been tremendous since the All-Star break. But the gap between the top four teams in the Eastern Conference and the rest has been obvious all season. The Hawks are a capable team, but Washington should advance rather easily.
John Wall’s late-season quadriceps injury is healed, according to the point guard. He claimed to be 100 percent on Friday after practice and is ready for the postseason. An outside MVP candidate (23.1 points per game, 10.7 rebounds per game), Wall will garner votes, though he won’t win the award and admitted as much on Friday. Still – Wall is just happy to be playing at this time of year. Last time against the Hawks he missed three games in that series with a sprained left wrist and never fully recovered even when he returned to the court. Washington, for now, will have no such issues this time around. That’s a big deal. Not every team is so lucky.
Catching the Celtics
All due respect to Boston, which had a wonderful season at 53-29 and earned the No. 1 seed. But the Wizards caught a break when LeBron James and the Cavaliers finished second. That means Cleveland must battle the No. 3 seed Toronto Raptors in the second round. The Celtics are very good. But those 53 wins are the fewest since Chicago won the conference with 50 in 2011-12. The Wizards and Celtics have no love lost between each other and also split four games this season. Each team won on its home court. That gives Boston the slight advantage if they meet in the second round, as expected. But Washington would like its chances. Last year the No. 4 seed was Atlanta and it had to face a 57-win Cleveland team in the second round. The Cavs swept the Hawks right out of the playoffs. The Wizards have a far better shot to beat the No. 1 seed this season.
Beating the Cavs
Cleveland was a powerhouse last season. It outscored opponents by over six points per game. LeBron James was at the peak of his powers. He’s still a force few teams can deal with. But the Cavs aren’t playing championship defense this season and dropped to three points per game vs. opponents. They also finished the season on a four-game skid. Can they simply turn it on in the postseason? Sure. But the Wizards have reason to be confident here, too. Their bench is far better than early in the season. They beat Cleveland 127-115 on March 25 on the road and the two teams played one of the season’s great games on Feb. 6. It took a miracle last-second shot by James to force overtime in a Cavs’ 140-135 win. The other game was a 105-94 win in the District on Nov. 11. The Wizards simply don’t resemble that team anymore. The late-season split and the win in Cleveland fuel the belief Washington could push the Cavs in an Eastern Conference final series.
For the first time, the Wizards have a coach who has held that job at the highest level and on the biggest stage. Brooks will get votes for NBA coach of the year. He got Wall to buy into his system, he stabilized a team that was falling apart in early December and now he has a group that believes it is a legitimate contender. They aren’t looking beyond the Hawks for now. But Brooks coached Oklahoma City to the conference finals in 2010-11 with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and the NBA Finals in 2011-12. They didn’t win. But Brooks didn’t get exposed, either. The Thunder were right back in the Western Conference finals in 2013-14. Brooks understands what works in postseason basketball and what doesn’t and has had a coherent message all year for his players. Ultimately, talent matters the most. But coaching is a small advantage the Wizards have that they likely didn’t in their previous trips.
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