Wizards’ Leonsis savors playoff payoff

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com


VIDEO: Wizards close out Bulls with 75-69 win in Game 5

CHICAGO – Training wheels off, coddling over. Ted Leonsis stood in the hallway outside the Washington Wizards’ dressing room at United Center Tuesday night and let the warm glow of accomplishment and expectations met wash over him.

His NBA team had just completed its gentleman’s sweep of the Chicago Bulls, the so-called “wild card” club that other Eastern Conference foes allegedly wanted to avoid. Washington, so inexperienced (no playoff appearances since 2008), so unprepared, not only flexed superior talent but beat the Bulls at what those guys do best: defense, rebounding, hustle, the proverbial grit of the game. And did it by sweeping all three games on Chicago’s court.

Leonsis had staked out this sort of thing back at the start of the season, and not in the most delicate terms. So as a coach or a player walked by and occasionally wrapped him up in a hug, Leonsis mostly beamed.

“For the last two months, you could really see this team coming together,” the Wizards owner said. “Our young kids are starting to get that experience. And they didn’t look scared at all. After the first game, we said, ‘We’re going to be OK,’ because John Wall and Bradley Beal just looked and felt like they belonged.”

Wall, the third-year point guard, had been the answer-in-waiting, a Jimmy John’s-quick ball handler who needed to stay healthy enough, and trust in his teammates enough, to bring Leonsis’ vision into focus.

“I think it just took time for me. My first couple years, I was dealing with injuries and not playing the full 82 games,” said Wall, 23. “They did a great job of rebuilding and adding great pieces around me, veteran guys and also in the draft. And I put a lot of pressure on myself to get better, to better my game as a player and also stay healthy.

“Sitting out [40 games] last year kind of let me know what this team could be. … We built this as a group. We trust each other. We do everything as a family. And that’s the reason we’re playing good basketball right now.”

Beal, 20, showed that precocious is way different from inexperienced. He led all scorers in the series (19.8 ppg), hit 45.5 percent of his 3-pointers and like Wall, met the defensive demands of coach Randy Wittman.

Where Wall was going to be the cornerstone of Leonsis’ and general manager Ernie Grunfeld‘s dig out of the post-Gilbert Arenas ashes, Beal represented a final piece. The owner made it clear way back on the night Beal was drafted in 2012 that he’d had enough lottery fun. Rookie forward Otto Porter, the No. 3 pick last June, had an injured and lost season which was almost OK; the Wizards had hoped to be done with high draft picks anyway and felt their pieces were in place.

Leonsis said in October he was tired of losing. He had committed money and resources to enhancing both the roster (Trevor Ariza, Marcin Gortat) and the Wizards’ creature comforts (new locker room), and it was time for some return on his investment.

Some claim the owner decreed this to be a playoffs-or-bust season for the lot of them. Including, or maybe most of all, Wittman. The accidental head coach (he had gained two of his three positions by taking over for a fired boss) brought a 47-84 record as Wizards coach into this season and 147-291 career mark, 0-for-8 in playoff berths.

“I’m very proud of the coaching staff,” Leonsis said. “This was Randy’s first playoffs and I thought he was magnificent. He did a really smart job on the matchups, I thought he called timeouts at the right time, and he was sensing and responding to the film game-by-game.”

Sounds downright avuncular, until you remember that Leonsis spent his weekend firing coach Adam Oates of his NHL Washington Capitals and severing ties with GM George McPhee. So maybe it was a good thing the Wizards, while clearly on the rise and a legit threat to keep going for a while, didn’t put his expectations to the test.

“Aww, I think it’s more hugging them and loving them, more than lighting a fire,” Leonsis told NBA.com Tuesday night. “But we’re in it together. We did set expectations. We said, ‘To those whom much is given, much is expected.’

“Frankly I promised that we would have a long, hard rebuild but there would be a big payoff at the end. And sometimes you have to be bad to get good. … So we deserved this. The good news is that no one in there is overly jubilant. Stay hungry – why not? We’re playing well, a good team, lots of talent. It’s a confident group and they’re not unfocused just by winning one round.”


VIDEO: Postgame reports from Wizards’ Game 5 win in Chicago

 

11 Comments

  1. Paul says:

    I believe that Wizards can defeat Heat in the final of Conference.

  2. germany says:

    @ OKC 2014 – Hi, you have something mixed up. The winner of the Toronto/Nets series play the Heat. The winner of the Hawks/Pacers series play the Wizards. That means the Hawks (they will beat the Pacers, what an upset), play the Wizards for entry into the Eastern Conf. Finals against the Heat. Great for basketball to see the Hawks and Wizards in the semi-finals and one to them in the finals.

  3. Don says:

    Let me ask a serious question: Does anyone believe that Wizards can defeat Heat in a series?

  4. okc2014 says:

    Whew! I’m glad Nene didn’t blow it foe them, by getting ejected. I was a little concerned about that. It is refreshing to see a team like the Wizards, who were not really expected to do much, take Chicago so swiftly and win the series. I’m happy for them, way past due. Gotta love John Wall! I also have faith in them to beat the winner of the Toronto/Nets series and end up playing against the Heat in the Leastern Conference Finals. This should be lots of fun to watch because by that time, the Wizards will definitely have their chests stuck out. If they end up playing the Heat, I really think they will have it in their heads that they can be the champions.

  5. Hernan says:

    Its fun to see everyone learn what we knew all year. That this is a solid team, that plays great defense, has a good balance of youth and experience and some exciting playmakers on offense.

  6. Truth says:

    Wizards are a very balanced team – youth/experience, size/quickness, shooting/driving/post offence, all-star. They’ll be a tough out and only getting better.

  7. Dee115401 says:

    As a season ticket holder, long time fan, and native Washingtonian, I’m so glad to finally see my Wizards do the darn thing with everyone watching on a grand stage, in a decisive manner (4-1) nonetheless. It’s been some very painful years not seeing the Wizards reach expectations and lagging in the shadow of the beloved Capitals. Very happy for the Wiz Kids! Wish you much success as you continue on your path towards the Eastern Conference championship and beyond. :-)

  8. A.J. says:

    Ted Leonsis. Why do so many good things happen to bad people?

  9. mee(a)t says:

    Its so cool seeing teams that were predicted to die off the first round cause upsets. Hawks might pull off one and the Grizzlies are close to it too.

  10. Kmonroe says:

    Good morning, I am not much of a Wizards Fan, however, I am enjoying the way this tean is playing good sound basketball. Best of luck in the next round!!!!!

  11. #30 says:

    the starter s@cks!

    take that!