CHICAGO – Let’s not overstate the change in the Washington Wizards that enabled the Wizards to pull off the first-round playoff upset and sweep the favored Toronto Raptors.
But it would perhaps be less surprising if the Republicans who control the U.S. House and Senate in Washington—who among other things have had members scream aloud “you lie” to the president and invited Israel’s prime minister to speak over his objections—planned the president’s party and all sang “Happy Birthday.”
This Wizards first-round playoff series victory looked like meek bespectacled Clark Kent walking into that phone booth and coming out Superman.
It was not only a stronger and more effective Wizards team that stunned and dominated a Toronto team that had swept Washington in the regular season, but it was a completely different Wizards team from the regular season.
Complete with altered personnel, strategy and philosophy.
This was sort of the Wizards as Bruce Jenner; there was a whole new team inside there no one ever knew much about.
It’s often said about the NBA that the playoffs and the regular season are different. But not like this.
There were hopes and expectations for the Wizards after they went to the second round of the playoffs last season; John Wall became an All-Star and they added veteran Paul Pierce to go with their formidable size in Nene and Marcin Gortat.
But the season became a struggle with what seemed like internal issues and coach Randy Wittman routinely criticizing the team, Gortat firing back about being upset not playing in the fourth quarter for defensive reasons, Nene and Pierce seemingly disinterested and old, Bradley Beal hurt and Wall wearing down from carrying the load.
The Wizards were criticized for failing to follow the trends in the NBA. They rarely shot 3-pointers, ranking 27th at about 16 per game while preferring the long 2-pointers that the modern day analysts condemn.
They stayed big with players like Kevin Seraphin and Kris Humphries their primary players off the bench along with veteran Rasual Butler. In fact, it was Butler’s early season 3-point shooting that rallied the team for some early wins when it got off to a good start.
They had a brutal second half, losing 11 of 13 into late February, five of six in March and then losing three of four to close the season and fell out of a chance for a home court and thus the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference.
They looked old, slow and seemingly on the verge of mutiny against their imperious coach.
This looked like a walkover for the Raptors even as Pierce just before the playoffs did an interview with ESPN in which he said the Raptors were a team lacking something significant to make them respectable. It further inflamed tensions in Canada, which perpetually has an inferiority complex in regards to its powerful southern neighbor.
And so the playoffs start and it seemed like the line from that old Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid movie: “Who are those guys?”
The Wizards were firing up 3s all over the place at record levels, even setting a franchise record with 15 made in Game 4. In the series, the Wizards averaged almost 25 threes attempted per game, an increase by almost 10 per game from the regular season.
All of a sudden, Humphries and Seraphin didn’t even play.
They were replaced with a small lineup with little-used Otto Moore, who wasn’t even in the regular rotation in March, sharing time with Drew Gooden, who rarely played at all the first half of the season and then only began to play somewhat regularly in March.
Could this have been Wittman’s plan all along?
This was Wittman, one of the more conservative and predictable coaches who rarely experimented.
Not only did he bench three of his regulars in Seraphin, Humphries and Butler, but he changed the playing style.
The Wizards were a physical team using their big men to bang away and then bring in more. Suddenly, Pierce went to power forward as a so-called “stretch four” and playing with Moore, spreading the court and shooting 3s. It’s one thing to try some different ideas, but no one had ever seen this from the Wizards. Not even in preseason practice games.
And it worked.
The court was opened, Wall sliced up the Raptors, who play small with multiple small guards, which likely was one reason the Wizards changed. But Wittman traditionally never has been a coach to adjust to the opposition.
With the Raptors small, in the past, like in their three losses to Toronto in the regular season, the Wizards tried to hammer Toronto with their size.
This time they spread them out and beat them at their own game. And Gortat came back to play fourth quarters.
What the heck?
And Pierce probably took some pressure off the young Wizards back court by having the opponent angry with him.
The Wizards increased their 3-point shooting in the playoffs from 36 percent to about 44 percent and reduced their percentage of 2-pointers in their offense from 35 percent to about 25 percent. They didn’t quite become the Houston Rockets, but they sure didn’t look like any Washington Wizards anyone had seen before.
The Toronto-Washington series wasn’t one of the highlights of the first round or one of the more anticipated. But it became the most unexpected for the most unexpected reasons.
Next round: Everyone dribbles backward and shoots with the opposite hand. Hey, we didn’t see this coming, either.
Sam Smith covered the Chicago Bulls for 25 years with the Chicago Tribune. He is the author of the best-selling book “The Jordan Rules.”