By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com
INDIANAPOLIS – In their development as a young, formidable NBA team, the Washington Wizards’ preternatural ability to win road games is like putting their socks and shoes on before pulling on their pants.
It seems so out of order.
A tradition built from vapor, too. The Wizards were 22-19 on the road this season, tied for the league’s eighth-best mark (their 22-19 home record ranked only 18th). That was a remarkable leap considering Washington was 7-34 a year ago, 9-24 in the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season and 3-38 the season before that.
This trend has only intensified lately: The Wizards are the first team to win their first four road playoff games, all against higher-seeded opponents, since the New Jersey Nets managed it in 1984. They knocked off the Bulls in five games by winning all three at Chicago’s United Center. Then they grabbed the series opener Monday against the Indiana Pacers at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
Traditionally in this league, teams on the rise learn to take care of business at home, then aim for .500 as they grow and build.
“Winning on the road’s a belief,” coach Randy Wittman said before his team’s practice Tuesday at the University of Indianapolis. “You’ve got to believe you’re going to go into any gym … and if we do things the way we’re capable of doing, we’re gonna win. A lot of times before [this season], you could play your best game and not have a chance to win.”
Wittman may be right in touting the intangibles involved in winning on the other guys’ courts because statistically, there is scant evidence to explain the success. Washington scored a little more on the road (101.0 vs. 100.3) but defended worse (100.5 vs. 98.3) than at home. Its differentials in rebounding, assists and shooting percentages showed little impact.
Individually, point guard John Wall averaged 3.4 ppg less on the road, with a 41.2 FG% that drooped from his 45.3 at home. Backcourt mate Bradley Beal showed some notable gains away from Verizon Center: 3.4 ppg and a bump from 39.8 percent shooting to 43.6 percent on the road. His offensive rating jumped from 97.0 to 106 in the NBA’s other buildings.
Forward Trevor Ariza also bumped up, by 2.9 ppg and with an offensive rating of 114 compared to 108 at home. He shot significantly better, inside and outside the arc.
Then again, winning as often on the road as at home doesn’t require big shifts in production; it mostly asks that a team’s performance doesn’t drop off in hostile environments. That’s where Washington has been notable – so much so, it was the only team in the league in 2013-14 that didn’t have a worse record on the road than at home.
“Your guess is as good as mine. But I think we like playing against other crowds,” Beal said. “We were the total opposite last year. I think we come out a lot more focused. We’ve bought in. On the road we’re not worried about too many distractions – it’s just us.”
Center Marcin Gortat has talked of this occasionally this season – a tendency not only to be distracted by the demands of daily life when playing in D.C., but to relax and expect more help from a crowd at Verizon Center that tends to be more wait-and-see. Some think that Wall and others focus too much at home on entertaining and rousing Wizards fans, compared to just sticking it to the throngs in the other arenas.
“When I played in Portland, we weren’t a good home team but we were dominant on the road,” guard Martell Webster said. “We play for each other on the road – same as at home – but I guess you feel a little more complacent and comfortable at home. On the road, there’s more of a sense of urgency and guys understanding that the odds are stacked against us. For us, that was comfortable. We enjoyed doing that.”
Said veteran forward Al Harrington, who rarely has seen this trend in his stops with seven different franchises: “I don’t know if it’s because we’re away from our families and stuff where guys can really lock in. But this is a great group where nobody goes out the night before games. Guys take it very serious, that next game.
“There’s no curfew. We could do whatever we want to do, but these young guys choose to stay in. I think that’s the biggest difference – we come out on the road with so much energy, so much focus.”