Hearts stopped for Washington Wizards fans at two points during Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, once in the second quarter and again in the fourth.
First point guard John Wall writhed in pain as he held his left wrist after an awkward fall. Then shooting guard Bradley Beal pounded the floor in agony, pain consuming his right ankle, after he stepped on Al Horford’s foot.
Wall and Beal, the Wizards’ twin building blocks, returned in Washington’s 104-98 victory against the Atlanta Hawks, allowing fans to breathe again. The dynamic duo also helped the team’s growing identity take root. It’s a team persona that’s surprising to many observers, but forward Paul Pierce said there were no new revelations for him Sunday.
“Those guys have as much as heart as anybody in the building,” Pierce told reporters after Washington became the first NBA team win four consecutive series-openers on the road. “Both suffered pretty good injuries and were able to bounce back. I take my hat off to them. They showed a lot of grit.”
We’re still growing accustomed to associating the Wizards with terms such as gritty, resilient and tough. Those weren’t the dominant traits a few weeks ago as they limped down the stretch with a 6-8 record to end a disappointing second half of the regular season.
But the lesson they taught everyone last year is being repeated and reinforced this year: Pay no attention to the first 82 games. Those are merely the prelims for these Wizards, who have won more playoff games in the last two seasons than the previous 27 combined.
That wouldn’t be the case without Wall and Beal, who experienced their maiden postseasons last year and now play like crusty regulars. Beal scored a game-high 28 points against the Hawks, bumping his career playoff average to 20.1 ppg. Wall added 18 points and a game-high 13 assists, essentially matching his averages through five playoff games this year (17.4 points and 12.6 assists).
Imagining the Wizards without either is a horrific mental image, but it flashed through minds as they laid on the court. Beal’s scare was particularly frightful considering his history of leg injuries. A post-game X-ray on his ankle was negative and his status for Game 2 is uncertain.
“That’s probably the worst I ever turned it ,” Beal told reporters after the game. He vowed to contribute Tuesday, regardless. “I can’t let the team down,” he said. “Even if I’m not a threat, I can be a decoy. Just have to have the will and mentality to do whatever it takes to win.”
Youth isn’t wasted on this young backcourt. Wall has been here since the Wizards’ reputation was accompanied by a laugh track, but he never bought into the joke. Teamed with a running partner in Beal who’s young enough, talented enough and confident to create a new brand, they’re trying to make up for lost time – as in 36 years since the franchise advanced to the conference finals.
Wall and Beal sipped success last season when they reached the second round and beat Indiana on the road. Following the same script after Game 1 against Atlanta, they’re ready for a big gulp.
“Last year we were just happy to be in the playoffs,” Beal said. “We were happy to move on and didn’t really have high goals after the first round. This year we expect more out of ourselves. We expect to get past the second round.”
The feat will be much tougher if he can’t play. But it’s not as if he’s James Harden carrying the Rockets on his back. Washington has multiple weapons, utilizing them regularly and efficiently. Aside from Beal, three Wizards are averaging double-figures in postseason scoring (Wall, Pierce and Martin Gortat) while two others average 9.6 points apiece (Otto Porter and Drew Gooden).
These Wizards are proving to be the rare D.C. team that’s better in the postseason. And you almost wish that every playoff game was held away from Verizon Center: They have become absolute road warriors, going 8-1 the last two seasons under coach Randy Wittman. He has added wrinkles to the rotation and offense, while infusing a forward-focus attitude that leaves no room for laurel resting.
“We can’t be happy with what we did today because this is the same situation we were in last year with Indiana and we gave that series away,” Gooden said. “We learned from that mistake. Thank God we have the same unit that was in that situation so we know how to carry ourselves throughout this series and know that one game doesn’t mean anything.”
It did mean something, another step into the new identity, forged by the Wizards’ dynamic backcourt.
If those two can only spare us more petrifying moments, everything else should work out fine.