By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com
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.”