All of the sudden, the Washington Wizards have gone from nice guys to Bad Boys II.
Clean-cut and soft-spoken figures such as Bradley Beal and Otto Porter Jr., have morphed into snarling, flexing and trash-talking players who draw energy from boos on the road. John Wall has added another level of nastiness to his toolbox.
Nene has never been stingy with his scowls, but we’re seeing more sneers from Kevin Seraphin, too. Martin Gortat is hammering the opposition in machine-like fashion, while Drew Gooden is getting on Toronto’s nerves with his pesky ways and Ramon Sessions is proudly wearing the chip he brought to town in February.
The Wizards’ insolence was so evident in Tuesday’s 117-106 victory at Toronto, their ringleader could take a backseat and marvel at what he instigated.
“I think a lot of the stuff y’all see coming out, it’s always been there,” Paul Pierce laughed as he told reporters after the game. “I just think, I kind of manifest it to another level.”
Ain’t that the truth.
Two games into the Wizards’ second consecutive playoff appearance – and NBA history with two road victories to open postseason play in back-to-back years – Pierce has been exactly what team president Ernie Grunfeld ordered last summer. The veteran leadership and pressure-packed production in championship moments has coated the Wizards with a swagger that was nonexistent last year.
He was simply being honest before the playoffs began when he told ESPN that Toronto lacked “the ‘It’ that makes you worry.” He said the same thing about would-be second-round opponent Atlanta: “As good as they are, they just don’t give off that aura where we’re afraid of them.”
It should be noted that Washington was 0-3 against Toronto and 1-3 against Atlanta in the regular season. The Wizards also were 1-3 against the Cavaliers, who could await in the Eastern Conference finals. But that doesn’t faze Pierce.
“You definitely have to worry about Cleveland because they have LeBron and some vets now,” he told ESPN. “But if we get to the conference finals, anything can happen.”
If the Wizards’ youngsters didn’t believe it then, they certainly believe it now.
When Wall and Beal play like they did Tuesday, combining for 54 points, and the team out-rebounds the opponent , 45-28, Washington can have supreme confidence entering any matchup. They have have been touted as one of the league’s top backcourts, at least potentially, and they’re taking advantage of the national spotlight to make their case.
After shooting a dreadful 6-for-23 from the floor in Saturday’s opener, Beal was a man possessed in Game 2. He eschewed jumpers for forays on the rim, attacking with an aggression that observers longed for. He talked smack and earned a technical foul for jostling with Raptors guard Kyle Lowery. Beal let it be known that the only thing soft about him is his feathery jumper.
“They think that we’re some punks,” he said during a halftime interview on Comcast SportsNet. “They think they can push around. But we’re not rolling.”
In the ESPN article earlier this month, Pierce said he sometimes wonders if Wall and Beal realize what it takes to be great, not just good. He expressed the same concerns about Porter, saying the former No. 3 overall pick “just needs to get mad … I should punch him one day just to get him riled up.”
The statement might’ve hit harder.
Porter sunk a floater in overtime for arguably Game 1’s biggest basket and came out Tuesday as if someone insulted his mother. He connected on 6 of 8 shots for 15 points and tied Nene for team-high with nine rebounds. Porter also was more demonstrative than normal, puffing and yelling and glaring as he carved the Raptors.
Like a Swiss Army knife, Porter can hurt opponents in multiple ways. Ideally, he’ll form a Big 3 on the wings with Wall and Beal. That could give Washington a superior version of Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince, who helped Detroit win a title in 2004.
Those Pistons had advanced to the conference finals the previous season and were swept by the New Jersey Nets, an invaluable experience. It looks like the Wizards’ sweet-and-sour tastes last year – beating Chicago in the first round and blowing the semifinals against Indiana – seasoned them well for this run.
Especially young guns Wall and Beal. (Porter didn’t play but obviously soaked it in.)
“At this time a year ago, (Beal) and John were scared … what’s the term I want to use without getting in trouble?” coach Randy Wittman told reporters Tuesday. “It’s totally different. Just that experience is huge for them to get a playoff series win, too, and get into the second round with the top seed last year. You can’t replace experience. They’re two different people now coming into this year.”
The entire team seems different this go-round, nastier, thanks in large measure to Pierce’s tangible and intangible contributions.
Don’t look now, but the Wizards have become bad men … in a good way.