When the Wizards struggled during a late stretch in the season – losing six of nine games, floundering against inferior teams, unable to break those damn Bobcats – we all got worrisome that the players were just becoming complacent with the mere achievement of earning a playoff spot. After all, it wouldn’t be a shocker for an Ernie Grunfeld-constructed team maxing out at 40-ish wins, backpedaling into the playoffs, and popping an Ace of Spade bottle to celebrate a week of national attention only to disappear into a poof of immaterial. The Wizards were seemingly funneling down that hole.
Fast-forward through a season-concluding 4-game winning streak which eventually landed the Wiz in 5th place and matchup against the Chicago Bulls. There was very little this freshly rebuilt franchise led by a first-time All-Star and a 20 year old had to lose. But the matchup with the Bulls was ultimately a perfect one. The Wizards cruised to a decisive first round series victory in 5 games thanks to the advantage of a well-coached defensive team versus a terrible Bulls offense, Nene’s domination of the league’s top defender, and perseverance on the road. More importantly, these Wizards had finally absorbed the fraught ambience and unforgiving tenacity of a playoff game and the desperation it triggers with its season-deciding stakes. And to the amazement of many, they handled it. They handled it as if Randy Wittman morphed into Malik Yoba in Cool Runnings and demanded them to repeat: “I see pride! I see power! I see a bad-ass mother who don’t take no crap off of nobody!”
Sure the ‘Cool Runnings’ reference is cute but it’s context is definitely real. Just take a gander at a guy like Wittman and the path he took to reach the point he’s at now. It’s actually quite synonymous with John Candy’s role in ‘Cool Runnings’ as you could consider the Wizards the basketball version of a Jamaican bobsled team, entering an unknown realm known as the NBA Playoffs. When Wittman agreed to inherit Flip Saunders’ muddled group, he agreed to take over a group of basketball players who were criminally underachieving, in complete disarray, and sorely misdirected. He took over a group of basketball players that had established the reasoning behind why Phil Jackson or Pat Riley would never take over a team without superstar presence or one that is in the midst of an overhaul. Wittman, however, insanely nosedived into a slough of impotence and inadequacy. He struggled to coach a team that was shuffling its players on and off the roster due to injuries and was tormented by the team’s unestablished chemistry..
/cut the somber back story. Really, there’s no need for it except to provide enough imagery to make you love Randy Wittman even more than I’d want you to.
The Wizards have practically become fearless in these NBA Playoffs. They’ve succumbed to nothing and no one. They’ve persevered through hostile playoff atmospheres, through mounds of coercion, scrutiny and disrespect. You can credit a ton of that to Randy Wittman. He’s coached these boys up into a state of resolute intrepidity and it’s absolutely terrific to watch. The thing that’s really worth praising Wittman for is the steadfastness in his coaching beliefs and his strategy, beginning first and foremost with his emphasis on defense. It’s all you heard on TNT’s “SoundTrax” segment when they had Witt mic’d up. It’s what you saw on the court in the winding minutes of Game 5 in Chicago and for most of last night in Indy when they held the Pacers to 40% shooting and outrebounded them 53-36.
The Wizards are 5-1 in the playoffs so far, with four of those wins coming away from the Verizon Center. They have a 20-year-old juvenile achieving playoff milestones shared only with past legends. They have a decaying power forward who’s quite possibly playing the best basketball ever in his playoff career. They have a point guard who, before the start of the postseason, could not fathom the likeness of a do-or-die atmosphere on a professional level. The Wizards certainly have talent; and in these playoffs, Wittman has graciously sculpted and fashioned that talent and amply put it on display for the nationwide miseducated saps who are just getting in tune.
So how has Wittman managed to succeed thus far in the playoffs despite all the above? Having trust is a good start.
Wittman put trust in Bradley Beal to anchor the team’s offense at the beginning of the fourth quarter last night. In a playoff road game. Against the #1 seed. What happened? Beal scored six points in the first three minutes of the quarter while John remained resting on the bench. He finished having scored 14 points in that final quarter and besides all the buckets, he was so composed and in control with the ball, enabling him to outlast anything the Pacers’ defense threw at him.
Wittman trusted Nene in the opening series against Chicago to attack the league’s DPOY, Joakim Noah. What happened? Despite Nene’s rust from missing a large portion of the end of the season, the offense continued to run through Nene in the high post and the primary victim of that was Noah, who had zero answers for Nene’s midrange.
Wittman trusted Drew Gooden despite his struggles in the third quarter. With Trevor Booker ineffective and Nene in foul trouble, Gooden remained on the floor going into the fourth quarter. What happened? Gooden destroyed Roy Hibbert and the rest of the Pacers’ interior with six rebounds including four offensive, totaling 13 for the game.
There’s no ‘lucky egg’ or superstition. No crazy game-plan or different approach. Just a man who’s learned to maximize his assets, and players who have bought into their coach’s philosophy. Also, this blog isn’t to insinuate or suggest that I’m backtracking on all the negative things I’ve said about Wittman in the past. His prior faults as a head coach are not totally forgotten, but mindless of what happens from here on out, the way he has stepped up and granted the direction this new playoff team sorely needed won’t be forgotten either.