In the playoff-or-bust mode that owner Ted Leonsis had mandated before the season began, the Washington Wizards had no doubt about what was expected of them this year. Simply qualifying for the postseason could have been seen as mission accomplished. But the players and coaching staff said they wanted more than a respectable showing and a first-round exit. On April 29 in Chicago, they got it, in the form of a 75-69 win against the Bulls, and a 4-1 series win.
Washington did it, coach Randy Wittman said, by not being satisfied with just being there.
"For a lot of them, it's the first time dealing with all this -- not only being in the playoffs, but closing off the series," Wittman said. "They realize how hard it is. They never lost their focus of being satisfied with a couple wins. I kept telling them: 'I want you to be the desperate team. Keep being the desperate team.' It was important that they did."
The Wizards haven't made it to the second round of the playoffs since the 2004-05 season. The growth and development of the team's younger players has helped the franchise turnaround, and the team also seems to have the right mix of veterans and young stars.
"A couple of years ago, with the guys that were here, we never could have won a game like this," Wittman said. "Now, this team believes in defense, what we do and how we do it. That's how we won."
The Wizards will take one day off April 30, before getting back on the practice court May 1 to prepare for their next opponent, the winner of the Indiana Pacers-Atlanta Hawks series. If the Pacers pull off the series win, the second round will begin at Indiana, the No. 1 seed. If the Hawks pull off the upset as the No. 8 seed, the second-round series will begin at Verizon Center.
"It's been a long journey we've been on," guard Bradley Beal said. "John [Wall]'s journey has been longer than mine. This is my second year, and for us to make the playoffs and win a tough series against a great team means a lot. At the same time, it's a humbling experience, because a lot of people doubted us. Now, we know what we are capable of doing. In advancing, we just have to take it one game at a time."
Washington won its regular-season series against Atlanta, 3-1, but was on the losing end of its regular-season series against Indiana, going 1-2. To advance to the Eastern Conference finals, Washington will have to continue doing what it did against Chicago, which forward Nene described as "working the plan."
"We played our plan from the first game to the last game," Nene said. "We explored togetherness. I am really happy for Bradley and John, because a lot of people said a lot of bad things about them, questioning how they would perform in the playoffs."
Wall averaged 18.8 points and 6.8 assists per game during the series against Chicago, and Beal averaged 19.8 points and 4.2 assists.
"I take my hat off to them," Nene said. "Their play was very energized. The Sky is the limit for them. They play defense, but they also trust each other. If we all work hard, we can do anything."