Posts Tagged ‘Randy Wittman’

Immersed in their own playoff series, Wittman’s, Thibs’ thoughts with Doc

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com

CHICAGO – If the pressures on an NBA head coach during the regular season can be described as some demanding boss loudly nagging you for six months that there’s more work to be done, the urgent postseason version would be a Marine drill instructor stalking your every step and screaming 24/7 an inch from your face.

As much as Washington’s Randy Wittman and Chicago’s Tom Thibodeau were dealing with their playoffs D.I., immersed in their Eastern Conference first-round series, they couldn’t help but think about their friend Doc Rivers. Rivers was facing on the West Coast something far more frantic and debilitating as the Donald Sterling fiasco flared up, eating everything in its NBA path for four days.

As the coach of the Los Angeles Clippers – Sterling’s team – Rivers was stuck at ground zero, his ability to focus on the Golden State Warriors waylaid by what became a national scandal and media feeding frenzy.

“I can only imagine – or I can’t imagine – having to deal with something like that when you’re worrying about beating a team in a playoff series,” said Wittman, who entered the NBA in the same 1983 draft as Rivers. They played their first five seasons together in Atlanta, teamed up as investors away from the game and remain extremely close.

Wittman said he had talked to Rivers more than once since Sterling’s racist remarks on an audio recording were made public, leading to an investigation and the swift and severe penalties Tuesday from commissioner Adam Silver.

“I was just trying to be there for him, obviously,” Wittman said. “I think he ‘s handled it as well as you can handle it. That doesn’t surprise me with Doc.

“I just wanted to be there to support him and try to help him get his mind back to what it should be. And that’s playing basketball. I think hopefully after today that can happen.”

Thibodeau has known Rivers for more than 20 years, from the days when the Bulls coach was an assistant in New York and elsewhere and the Clippers coach was playing in the league. They joined up in Boston from 2007-2010, Thibodeau largely installing the Celtics’ defense for a team that won the 2008 NBA championship and went back to the Finals in 2010.

Connecting with Rivers by texts through the controversy, Thibodeau said several times over the weekend that his friend, given his personality and skills, might have been the best equipped among the NBA’s head coach to steer his team – and within his limits, the league – through the furor.

“Because this is a big issue for our whole league,” Thibodeau had said Monday. “Doc is a great leader with a lot of strength, a lot of composure. He’ll help guide us through it.”

Now Rivers can concentrate on guiding the Clippers through it. With peers and buddies who have his back.

No-no Nene, but Wizards still confident

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com


VIDEO: Nene suspended for one game after head-butt

WASHINGTON — It’s one thing to stand toe-to-toe against the raw physicality of the Bulls in the playoffs.

It’s a whole different challenge when you’re missing your big toe.

But with power forward Nene suspended by the NBA for head-butting and grabbing Jimmy Butler around the neck with both hands on Friday night, coach Randy Wittman says the Wizards are still on solid footing.

“We’re more than capable with who we have on this team,” he said a short time before the suspension was announced. “That’s just it. It could happen to anybody. … Somebody could come in sick and somebody’s gotta step up. That’s cliche, I know, but that’s the way it is.”

The Wizards had already completed their Saturday practice when the suspension was made official by Rod Thorn, NBA president, basketball operations.

Nene was unavailable for comment.

The incident occurred with 8:28 left in the fourth quarter of Chicago’s 100-97 win in Game 3, which sliced the Washington lead in the series to 2-1.

After scoring on a fast-break layup, Nene turned to run back up the court and lifted his left arm to clip Butler with a chicken wing as he ran by. Butler objected verbally and reached out with his right hand to give Nene a shove in the side.

As the two players stepped toward each other, the 6-foot-11 Nene leaned down and pressed his head against Butler’s. Then Nene clasped both of his hands around Butler’s neck.

When asked if he thought anything he saw merited a suspension, Wittman replied: “No, I don’t.”

Regardless, the Wizards have to play without their big man, who is averaging 17 points, 6.3 rebounds per game and has done an outstanding job of negating the play in the paint by the Bulls’ Joakim Noah.

The Wizards do have plenty experience playing without Nene as he missed 29 games during the regular season. Washington was 1-6 without him when Nene was shelved for two games with a strained left calf and five games with a sore right foot early in the season. But they were a more successful 12-10 without Nene in the lineup when he suffered a sprained left knee.

“Obviously, it’s gonna be a huge loss for us,” said center Marcin Gortat. “We played without Nene over the 82 games and the situation is totally different then. But we’ll see. We’ll see.

“You gotta bring it. You gotta bring it. There’s an opportunity for me to play bigger role. The inside offense is gonna go through me. I just gotta perform. I gotta be on top of my game.”

Wittman said the last thing he wants his team to do is react to the Game 3 incident by taking the edge off their game and backing down from Chicago’s rough-and-tumble style.

“I told our players, you can be confrontational and do it in a way that doesn’t cost you an ejection,” Wittman said. “We’ve seen it the first two games and nobody’s been thrown out. It’s a matter of making sure in those situations that you keep your composure. It gets physical out there. There’s a lot of pushing and shoving and talking and … it’s a fine line of crossing the line that gets you to the point of ejection or not.

“We just gotta make sure we keep our composure in that area. I don’t want them stepping back at all from a physicality standpoint. Not at all. It just reaches a line and we got to know where that line is.”

Gortat nodded his head in agreement.

“X’s and O’s are one thing,” he said. “At the end of the day physicality is the will of winning the basketball game. … There’s a time to do X’s and O’s and a time to fight and scrap and just play the way they play us. Unfortunately, things went wrong for us.”

The Wizards did manage to duck the double-whammy of losing Gortat as well. Video replays showed the center, who was out of the game at the time, leaving the bench and stepping slightly onto the court when the scuffle broke out.

According to NBA rules, any player who leaves the bench area during a fight on the court is subject to suspension.

“It’s not like I was running and yelling and screaming,” Gortat said. “I was just standing there and had no idea what was going on. At some point actually I realized I was on the court, I started taking steps back because I was like, ‘I don’t think I supposed to be here.’ So I started walking back. I was just shocked what was going on on the court at that time.”

Backup forward Trevor Booker started 45 games this season, many of them when Nene was injured. He was one of the closest players to Nene and Butler when they locked up.

“I didn’t know how far it would go. Unfortunately it went too far where he got ejected,” Booker said. “Somebody else has got to step up. He’s a big piece, but we got some games without him that we won.

“We lost focus, but we’ll get it back tomorrow. You got to do what you got to do.”

Bulls out of scoring options, out of gas?

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com


VIDEO: Taj Gibson talks to the media after the Bulls’ practice on Wednesday

A couple weeks ago, the Chicago Bulls were the team that no one in the Eastern Conference playoff bracket allegedly wanted to play.

In a matter of days, no one might have to.

Unless the Bulls find a way to generate offense late in games, unless they stop trying to beat Washington in three-and-a-half quarters while spotting the Wizards four, the grimiest, hardest-working team in basketball soon will be on extended vacation. For all its pluck, for all its spunk, Chicago is facing a hole as the series shifts to D.C. for Game 3 Friday every bit as big, historically, as losing an MVP (Derrick Rose) or trading away an All-Star (Luol Deng).

The Bulls overcame – maybe compensated for is more apt – the absences of Rose and Deng by shifting those guys’ responsibilities onto others and resolutely playing harder. But down 0-2 in this first-round series, they don’t really have any others left and they might be out of gears.

NBA past doesn’t bode well for the Bulls’ future, either. Only three teams in playoff history – the 1969 Lakers, ’94 Rockets and ’05 Mavericks – won a best-of-seven series after dropping the first two games at home. Houston finds itself in the same predicament against Portland at the moment, but never mind the company; the Bulls are coping with their own misery.

Their vaunted defense, with coach Tom Thibodeau barking orders and Joakim Noah as the newly minted Defensive Player of the Year, has been shredded for 101.5 points and the Wizards’ 48.1 field-goal percentage in two games. Despite opening double-digit leads in both, the Bulls have been outscored in the fourth quarter 51-34 while shooting 35.3 percent (12 of 34), and they missed seven of nine shots in Game 2’s overtime.

As far as seeking help from different sources, there have been no different sources. The bench is thin after Taj Gibson and D.J. Augustin, and Thibodeau has coached accordingly: Of the series’ 505 available minutes so far, more than 95 percent (481:33) have been heaped on just seven guys.

Even that is misleading: Jimmy Butler (96:46, including all 53 Tuesday) and Noah (85:36) each has played nearly as much as forwards Carlos Boozer (45:22) and Mike Dunleavy (54:42) combined. Thibodeau has stuck with the rotation that earned Chicago a 36-14 record in the 2014 portion of the regular season. That means Dunleavy has logged less than 10 minutes in the fourth quarters and OT in this series and Boozer has amassed zero.

Because Boozer and Dunleavy are primarily offensive players, not playing them when the points get scarce late in games has focused heat on Thibodeau. To a lot of Bulls fans, it’s like trying to ride out a headache without uncapping the aspirin bottle. But Thibodeau is committed to the late-game lineup that worked so well for so long. And, hey, he knows Boozer and Dunleavy primarily are offensive players too.

“You have to work your way out of things,” Thibodeau said, almost by rote. “We have a lot of guys who have played well in the fourth quarter all year. … We have to do it collectively. And that’s really what we’ve done. When we lost Derrick and we lost Luol, that’s the makeup of our team.

“You can’t get wrapped up in the first two games other than you want to learn from what happened. Get ready for the next one. Don’t look ahead. That’s the way we’ve approached it all season. We’re not changing now.”

Trouble is, Washington has risen to its rare postseason occasion. The Wizards have been feistier at both ends. Defensively, they’re pressuring the ball and almost daring the Bulls’ non-shooters to shoot.

Noah, Chicago’s “point center,” has been attacked when he attempts to handle the ball, ignored if he’s shooting outside the restricted zone and squeezed when he sets up 18 feet from the basket, Wasington’s Nene crowding Noah to limit his passing angles and vision. Nene’s offense has the DPOY sweating and maybe a little rattled, with Games 1 and 2 sandwiching the award ceremony in Chicago with Noah’s entire family in town.

Augustin, this year’s Rose surrogate, has been a scoring godsend, but when 6-foot-8 Trevor Ariza volunteered to guard the smallish point guard down the stretch in Game 2, Augustin was done. He stayed stuck on 25 points over the final 13 minutes.

Wizards coach Randy Wittman even has made the more apparent and successful adjustments so far – in transferring scoring load from frontcourt (Nene, Marcin Gortat) to backcourt (John Wall, Bradley Beal), in deploying veteran backup Andre Miller in key old-school moments – and been rewarded twice. That hits Thibodeau right where his strength is, in the lab, in resiliency.

Consider this role-reversal quote from Gibson on Wednesday.

“We watched the film, it came down to we were like a fingernail short every time. Guys were diving for the balls, scrambling around, and they just made some great plays, playoff-style basketball I guess,” the Bulls’ sixth man said.

“[They are] a hungry team. … They go up, we go up, but the way they start the games off, the way they finish them, especially on defense, getting loose balls, scramble plays, rugged-basketball kind of style, that’s kind of our style if you think about it.”

Actually, it was the Bulls’ style until Saturday. Unless they get back to that in Game 3 and whatever beyond they can eke out, their postseason will become past season in a hurry.

Wittman goes from ‘worst’ to ‘first’ as Wizards make playoff noise

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com


VIDEO: The Starters take a look at the Wizards’ Game 2 win

The NBA playoffs are only two games old for the Washington Wizards, but that’s enough for their coach, Randy Wittman, to already have gone from worst to first.

Some stipulations on the terms are necessary here: Wittman, whose eight seasons as a head coach have been split among Cleveland, Minnesota and Washington stints, ended the 2013-14 regular season with the worst winning percentage (.367, 191-329) of any NBA coach who has worked at least 400 games. That cutoff covers 90 men and a bunch of Hall of Famers, from Phil Jackson‘s record .704 success rate to Lenny Wilkens‘ .536 over the largest sample size (2,487 games).

Next-worst behind Wittman by a coach who meets the 400-game criterion? Former Washington center and coach Wes Unseld (.367, 202-345). Which means that, if the Wizards go 12-15 in their first 27 games next season, Wittman will climb out of that particular hole.

But he’s already out of the hole in his first taste of the postseason as a head coach. At 2-0, Wittman is in sole possession of the best winning percentage (1.000) in NBA playoff history.

That’s better than the No. 2 man, Jackson (.688), and way better than fellows such as Pat Riley (.606), Gregg Popovich (.618) and Red Auerbach (.589). Of course, those four guys coached a fat, round total of 1,001 playoff games, including Popovich’s work in Game 2 Wednesday against Dallas.

Obviously this all is a hoot, mere fun with numbers. If the Wizards lose the next two in their Eastern Conference first-round series against Chicago, Wittman will tumble all the way to .500. And so on.

But this little bump – not on his resume as much as in how Washington looks to have peaked for this opportunity, beating the Bulls twice at United Center – speaks to the situations Wittman has been in and his ability to survive. Or at least, re-surface.

In and around assistant jobs with Dallas, Minnesota, Orlando and Washington, Wittman got some some typical head coaching opportunities, i.e., bad teams. He went 62-102 with the pre-LeBron James Cavaliers and got fired. He took over when the Timberwolves dumped Dwane Casey (another comeback kid) in January 2006 and went 38-105 before getting the ax himself.

Then Wittman moved one seat over again two seasons ago, after Flip Saunders got fired at 2-15 but encouraged his top assistant to stick around. Wittman steered a motley Wizards group to an 18-31 finish, then went 29-53 last season when point guard John Wall‘s injuries provided at least a reasonable explanation for the struggles.

A former first-round pick as a guard/forward under Bobby Knight at Indiana University, Wittman played nine seasons in the NBA mostly for Atlanta and Indiana. In his assistant stints next to Saunders in Minnesota and Washington, he often was deployed as the “bad cop,” correcting players while Saunders stayed above the fray as the “good cop.”

Over time, borrowing from here and there, Wittman developed his coaching style. And it’s still developing.

“You learn by being thrown into the fire,” he said recently. “And yeah, you learn a ton of things that you like and things that, ‘Boy, you know, I can’t do that. I’ve got to change that part of my coaching.’

“You mellow out a little bit more, you learn to delegate. Back then, you just tried to have your hands on everything, and you can’t do that – it burns you out.”

This season, Wittman and the Wizards were said to have had a fire lit under them: Make the playoffs or (gulp). The franchise’s five-year drought of postseason appearances already was too long for owner Ted Leonsis, and there was talent in place capable of doing better. After a raggedy start – 25-27 through the All-Star break – and an extended absence by big man Nene, Washington started to gel.

Now the Wizards are playing as well as they have all season. Wittman, who worked with a target on his back for a couple of years, is getting credit from the outside and, more important, the inside. He welcomes references to his college coach, Knight, as far as a defensive influence. But Wittman seems to have backed off the scenery-chewing.

“What stands out to me the most, man, is how he stuck with us,” 20-year-old shooting guard Bradley Beal said Tuesday in Chicago. “He came into a pretty bad situation and he basically turned the team around. He’s had faith and confidence in us from Day 1 – ever since I got here, at least – of what we’re capable of doing. And what kind of team we can be.

“For him having played in the NBA helps me out a lot, because he played my position. I learn something from him every day. He pushes us, challenges us every day to be the best we can be. He knew we could be a playoff team at the beginning of the year. Now we’re here. But we’re setting new goals and standards, saying, ‘Let’s get higher than that.’ “

Where was this Wizards team all season?

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com


VIDEO: Wizards stay perfect on Chicago’s home court in playoffs

CHICAGO – In a span of two games, on the road in a tough building, the Washington Wizards have shifted the conversation from how their long-awaited taste of the postseason probably wouldn’t last more than one round to where the heck this team was all season.

When you look at what the Wizards have done in grabbing their 2-0 lead over the Chicago Bulls in the best-of-seven series and apply it to the 82 games that preceded this, it suddenly seems like their 44-38 record and certain middling stats (17th in offensive rating, 20th in rebounding, 25th in foul shooting) represent some shameful underachieving.

Consider some of the things they accomplished on their stay in the Windy City, which wrapped with the 101-99 overtime playoff nightcap:

  • Overcame a 13-point deficit in one of the most boisterous road gyms in the league to grab the series opener.
  • Toyed with Chicago’s vaunted defense at times, as in outscoring the Bulls 61-38 across the final quarter of Game 1 and the first 12 minutes of Game 2.
  • Kept their focus through some physical shenanigans first between Kirk Hinrich and Bradley Beal, later between Trevor Ariza and Joakim Noah, without getting intimidated or spinning out of control.
  • Clamped down defensively again when it mattered most. The Wizards limited Chicago to just 12 points, total, in the final six minutes of the two fourth quarters.
  • Squandered an early 17-point lead in Game 2, fell behind by 10 with seven minutes left, yet caught the Bulls with a 14-4 run to close regulation, Beal scoring nine of those Washington points.
  • Pressured Chicago just as hard at the end as they did at the beginning, limiting the home team to 2-for-9 shooting in the overtime while generating just enough offense of their own (Nene, six points)

Had the Wizards played that way all season, they might have, what … pushed toward 50 victories, which would have been good enough for the No. 3 seed? Put some heat on the Heat in the Southwest Division? Made life a lot easier on their coaches, their fans and themselves by locking up their postseason berth sooner, with a little less late-season drama?

Of course, this team isn’t that team. And vice-versa. The Wizards apparently had to go through the trials of their first 82 to prepare for the moments to which they’ve risen in Games 1 and 2.

“We’re a different team,” Ariza said. “We’re a team that learned from our mistakes. We’re learning to play hard and play through everything. Like tonight, the game, I guess, was a little chippy. We didn’t let that rattle us.”

Ariza, the small forward whose volunteer defensive work on the Bulls’ smaller shifty-quick D.J. Augustin helped to limit Chicago’s scoring options, continued: “We’re definitely more locked in. We’re paying more attention to detail in shootarounds and practice. We’re talking more – communication is a big part of being a good team. And our 1 [John Wall] and 2 [Beal], they’re maturing.”

The Wizards have gone from a 25-27 team at the All-Star break to that unpredictably dangerous bunch that Miami looks wise to avoid as long as possible. By slipping into the East’s No. 2 seed, the Heat kept Washington at bay as long as possible, the Bulls-Wizards winner due to face whichever team emerges from Pacers-Hawks.

Yes, it helps to have Nene healthy, back from his sprained left knee. And granted, tightening the screws on Chicago’s often-gasping attack isn’t the toughest task for a legitimate NBA defense. But somebody was out there sticking to the Bulls’ best weapons.

“That team is under the radar,” Bulls sixth man Taj Gibson said. “They’re a great defensive team. It shows, how poised they were come late [in the game].”

Late in the season, too. As recently as March, the Wizards were giving up 101.4 points per game. In April, that got whacked down to 92.9. Take away the overtime Tuesday and the Bulls have averaged 92.0 in the two games while shooting 42.6 percent. And Chicago has been nearly choked off at times, going six or seven minutes without a field goal.

Stacking up defensive stops like that has a cumulative effect, coach Randy Wittman said.

“It’s going to be easier even when we show ‘em the tape,” Wittman said. “When you get six, seven stops in a row when you’re down 10, that’s how you can win the game.

“We keep track of it throughout the game – how many stops we get in a row. My coaches will tell me what it is, and if it’s one or two in the course of a game, that’s not very good. We got it going there at the end of the fourth quarter where I think it was six or seven. That energizes those guys too – they take pride in it.

And lo and behold, Washington is up 2-0 in a best-of-seven playoff series for the first time since 1979.

Coaches get the day-after call reversals but would rather avoid them

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com



VIDEO: The foul that should have gone the other way

CHICAGO – Former NBA center Darryl Dawkins, one of the league’s most colorful characters known both for shattering backboards and high quotability, once said, “When everything is said and done, there’s nothing left to do or say.”

Hard to quibble with that, be it here or on Chocolate Thunder’s planet Lovetron. Yet the NBA’s recent policy of informing teams, and the public, the day after a game that a particular officiating decision was wrong and should have gone the other way, goes against that notion.

The final horn of a game used to mean everything was said and done. Now, with the league’s emphasis on transparency when reviewing referees’ calls, there can be much more, well, at least to say. The Houston Rockets had to cope with that Tuesday after learning that a foul called on Dwight Howard should have been a Portland foul sending Howard to the line with 10.8 seconds left in overtime. There wasn’t much satisfaction after losing and yet, in talking to the media, the Rockets had to be cautious they didn’t say anything that might get them fined.

That’s why Washington coach Randy Wittman prefers to have that stuff dealt with above his pay grade.

“All that does is get me even more riled up,” said Wittman, who did play college ball for Bobby Knight, after all. “I let our front office deal with that. it doesn’t do me any good to have somebody tell me they blew a call. Those guys are human like we are. We make mistakes; they do. But I don’t like it.”

Transparency is an important value for the NBA these days, referred to frequently by new commissioner Adam Silver. For instance, the league is posting online for the first time the ballots of the writers and broadcasters for the 2013-14 annual awards as each honor is announced.

Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau took a broader view when discussing the day-after policy. Of course, as he spoke, tipoff of Game 2 between Chicago and Washington was nearly two hours away. He wasn’t stalking the sideline in full-game growl yet.

“The league I think has done a good job with that,” he said. “The more you’re around, the more you understand: Look, there’s a lot of these calls that are 50-50 calls. They could go either way.”

Thibodeau added of the refs: “Hey look, everyone in their job, you want to get ‘em all right. It’s not going to happen. They get a lot of them right. They’re really good. You can go back and replay a play many times, and you still can’t tell what’s right. Most of the time, they’re on. These guys are great pros. They’re not here by accident.”

Wizards’ Wall, Beal grow up on the fly

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com


VIDEO: Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau looks ahead to Game 2

CHICAGO – John Wall and Bradley Beal have the talent necessary to compete with, maybe even defeat, the Chicago Bulls in their best-of-seven Eastern Conference series. They have the health, they have the stamina, they have the enthusiasm.

What the Washington Wizards’ young starting backcourt doesn’t have is playoff experience. And getting it on the fly against a salty Bulls team seemed to many like it might be asking too much. By the time the Wiz guards fully get it, folks figured, five, six or seven games – and four defeats – might have slipped away.

But that didn’t happen in the first postseason games of Wall’s and Beal’s career, their Game 1 victory Sunday at United Center. So there’s way less reason to think it would show up in Game 2 Tuesday or at any point as the series grinds on.

“A 20-year vet is going to have jitters, the first game of the playoffs,” Wizards coach Randy Wittman said at the Wizards’ shootaround. “If you don’t, you’re not into the game. I thought our guys were in tune and ready to go. I don’t anticipate anything different [the rest of the way].”

If the “rest of the way” for the newbie Wizards were to take them all the way to The Finals, it would be like winning the Tour de France on training wheels. That they could even walk around the Bulls’ city for 48 hours wearing the yellow jersey was a triumph of its own.

“We’ve got great veteran guys and our young guys are mature for their age,” Wall, the 23-year-old point guard, said midday Tuesday. “Even though it was our first playoff game, we didn’t get rattled, we didn’t try to do it on our own. We stuck with the game concept and making the right plays. And even though me and Brad’s shots weren’t falling, we were staying aggressive and doing things at the defensive end to help us win.”

Wall and Beal did pester Chicago’s backcourt players, particularly reserve point guard D.J. Augustin, who missed 12 of his 15 shots and had three turnovers. The Wizards’ pair missed shots of their own – they were a combined 7-of-25 – but Wittman didn’t sweat their shot selection and both stayed active enough to have positive impacts.

How positive? They both were plus-11, tops in that category on either side. They combined for 13 assists, eight rebounds and 15-of-17 foul shooting, totaling 29 points.

It’s worth noting too that Chicago’s defense, as directed by coach Tom Thibodeau, paid enough attention to the potent guards that it opened up opportunities for big men Nene (24 points) and Marcin Gortat (15).

Beal, who won’t turn 21 for another two months, said he had heard about how different the playoffs are from the regular season, all that stuff about intensity and being scouted inside and out and never taking plays off. It all came true, he said, but it didn’t steamroll him or his buddy.

“You’re always going ot have nerves, of course, but at the same time, you’re just out there with four other guys on the floor playing against the opponent. You can’t focus on the crowd – you notice that they’re there – but at the same time, while you’re playing, it’s like you’re just playing in open gym. It’s like no one’s around.

“Hopefully we can come out and play more desperate. Like we’re down 0-1.”

Nene says no-no to Chicago’s defense

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com


VIDEO: Wizards claim series opener in Chicago

CHICAGO – Nene, the Washington Wizards’ big man by way of Sao Carlos, Brazil, was having trouble Saturday night and Sunday morning. He couldn’t sleep. The 2014 NBA playoffs were soon to start for his team and Nene – already thrilled about coming back from a left knee sprain – didn’t know which was pumping faster: his heart or the adrenaline.

“The mental preparation is very important. Last night I couldn’t sleep well, because I started to think about the game in the middle of the night,” he said Sunday at United Center, the Wizards’ 102-93 road victory over the Chicago Bulls tucked in for the night.

“I started to think about what I was going to do. How I was going to defend. I was very excited about the playoffs. It’s a good feeling because that makes you prepare yourself. I hope I can’t sleep again, to play better.”

Sorry, Nene, but the Bulls will be in charge of the tossing and turning for the next couple of nights.

Starting for the first time since February, Nene made a big difference for the Wizards size-wise, impact-wise and excitement-wise in their first playoff game since 2008. He stepped back into the middle of their action seamlessly, scoring 24 points on 11 of 17 shooting with eight rebounds and three assists.

His aggressiveness became their aggressiveness, and Washington wound up picking apart Chicago’s vaunted defense in several uncommon ways. Teams don’t shoot 50 percent against the Bulls – but the Wizards nearly did so in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference first-round series. Their 48.6 percent was close enough, and if you combine it with the Wizards’ two January victories over Chicago, it left them at a legit 50.4 percent (115-for-228) in the three games.


VIDEO: Nene talks about winning Game 1

Bulls opponents hit half their shots or better just 12 times in 82 games but went 10-2 as their reward. If you go strictly by what Washington shot Sunday and only in postseason games, the Bulls are 1-19 since the start of the 2006 playoffs when the other guys are at 48 percent or higher.

Key to that? They embrace their third options, because they know the Bulls are going to take away the first two.

“You can’t predetermine anything,” coach Randy Wittman said. “You can’t make up your mind on a certain play that you’re going to do this. They’re so good defensively, you’ve got to react to what they’re doing. Make the simple plays and the ball moves in simple ways. When we do that, we get pretty good shots. And we’ve got guys who can shoot.

“As soon as you say ‘I’m going to split this pick-and-roll here,’ it’s a turnover. When we don’t do that, when we don’t anticipate and just react to what the defense does and what they want to take away and then go your second or third option, then we’re pretty good.”

The Wizards’ ability to read-and-react kicked in fully after halftime. They fell behind by 13 points in the first few minutes of the third, then outscored Chicago 51-29 the rest of the way. While the points-challenged Bulls shot just 39.5 percent over the final two quarters, the Wizards settled in, hitting half of their 38 attempts and, oh yeah, dominating the boards 24-15.

Nene was especially effective, with a versatility on the offensive end that kept Chicago guessing. He was reliable with his mid-range jump shot, attacked the rim multiple times and, particularly in the second half, was a crafty passer (with a couple of hockey assists mixed in).

Overall, he made life pretty difficult for Bulls center Joakim Noah, one of the favorites for the league’s Defensive Player of the Year award. Good thing the ballots were all cast by Thursday.

Tom Thibodeau, who routinely has the sort of sleepless nights Nene experienced this weekend, lavished praise on the Wizards’ big man, even as he began plotting ways to thwart him. It won’t be easy – Washington was 30-23 when Nene played this season, 14-15 when he did not.

This was only the fourth time in 45 playoff games that he scored as many as 20 points. But he’s healthy now and doesn’t plan on missing any more games. Or fun.

“Today I feel fantastic. First of all, it’s a special day for all of us. It’s Easter Day,” Nene said. “For all humans, it’s a big day. You know, salvation day. And to be able to play playoffs on this specific day is double-blessed.”

Restoring Nene to his rightful spot, next to Wizards center Marcin Gortat, makes them double trouble. Neither big man got in the other’s way in Game 1 – in fact, after a slow start, Gortat finished with 15 points and 13 rebounds, 12 and eight in the second half.

“I’m just trying to play off Nene,” Gortat said. “The most important thing is, we not run into each other in the game. Most of the time he’s on the other side of the block – wherever I am, he’s on the other side. The system we have is perfect for both of us. Each one of us is getting to a sweet spot where we can play our game.

“If I start scoring on the pick-and-rolls or put-backs, they’re going to focus a little bit more on me. That opens up things for him. He’s so aggressive, so dominant in the low post that he can create a lot of things for us.”

What Nene created for the Wizards in Game 1, with his scoring, his energy, his passing and his joy of playing again, was hope. Precisely the thing Chicago had hoped to quash.

Blogtable: How High For Washington?

Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes across the globe to weigh in on the three most important NBA topics of the day — and then give you a chance to step on the scale, too, in the comments below.


The Suns with Pau | The Wizards? Really? | Blake, Kevin or L.A.?



VIDEO: John Wall leads Washington past Oklahoma City

Could the Wizards end up Top 4 in the East? How’d that happen?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.comIn the East, if you’re above .500, you’re a contender for a top-4 seed, and the Wizards’ whole season has been about breaking above .500. It dates to last season, when coach Randy Wittman‘s marching orders were basically to be .500 in games in which point guard John Wall was available. They nearly did it, going 24-25 with Wall and 5-28 without him. The urgency got dialed up coming into this season, with jobs on the line if there wasn’t more progress. Trevor Ariza has been a valuable piece this season, Marcin Gortat has been the upgrade Washington needed, rookie Otto Porter basically is a bonus player after missing so much of the season’s first half and Wittman has done a good job with the defense and in cobbling together a rotation from young, overlapping parts. But the Wizards’ greatest asset is its backcourt, Wall and Bradley Beal – skilled and as promising as any in the league.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: If they keep playing the kind of solid team defense that’s held down the Suns, Warriors, Thunder and Blazers over the past several weeks, it’s not out of the question, which is how the Wizards are over .500 for the first time since 2009. They’ve got the best point guard in the East in John Wall running the show and the rest of the roster seems to finally be coalescing around him. However, while they are within arm’s reach of Atlanta right now, let’s hold off any certain judgment until they can stay above .500 for a couple of weeks.

Jeff Caplan, NBA.com: Let’s consult the standings: Hmm, yes, the Wiz are No. 5 and although just one game over .500 they’re closing in on No. 3 Atlanta. Yes, by golly, the Wiz can get a top-four playoff spot! How did it happen? This is the East we’re talking about here. At the same time it is nice to see the team heading up instead of drowning like Cleveland or Detroit. I’m happy for coach Randy Wittman, who could have already been fired, but wasn’t. They’ve got health now and, look, this is a nice starting five. John Wall has a case to be the East’s starting point guard over Kyrie Irving, Bradley Beal is dangerous and the front line with Nene and Marcin Gortat can be pretty formidable. There’s not much depth, but this group, in this conference, is top-four material.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com: Because they play in the East. That’s how it happened. A two-game winning streak puts anyone in contention for home-court in the playoffs. Beyond that as the obvious, this always had the potential to be a postseason team. Getting John Wall and Bradley Beal together on the court is imperative. And while it doesn’t get a lot of attention, the Marcin Gortat acquisition has paid off.

John Schuhmann, NBA.com: It happened because teams 3-15 in the East aren’t very good. Really, whether the Wiz get a top-four spot is as much about the rest of the conference as it is about them. Will the Raptors trade Kyle Lowry? Can the Bulls keep Joakim Noah healthy? Will the Hawks keep hanging on? Have the Nets really gotten their act together? Throw in the Wiz and you should have five teams fighting for the 3 and 4 spots, with one of them stuck playing the Heat in the first round. Washington has been a top-five defensive team since Jan. 1, which is a good sign for them going forward. And of that group, they’ve played the second toughest schedule so far (behind only Toronto). At worst, they should finish fifth.

Sekou Smith, NBA.comThe Wizards could actually be good enough in the Eastern Conference this season. So could the Toronto Raptors … Brooklyn Nets … Atlanta Hawks … or Chicago Bulls. That’s just the nature of the East this year. The Wizards are in that mix immediately after the Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat, and they have the talent to challenge for that top-four spot in the playoff chase. They need to find a way to stay above .500, now that they’ve finally gotten there. And they need to stay healthy down the stretch of this season. How they got here starts with a defensive-minded group that has been a constant the past couple of years and ends with the arrival of John Wall the All-Star and a supporting cast that has finally grown comfortable with him as their leader. Sustainability is the name of the game in Washington now.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com All Ball blogWatching the Wizards this season, I keep going back to the long conversation I had over the summer with John WallFor a guy who had mostly been up and down the first few years of his career, Wall sounded completely focused. On that day he convinced me that he was the guy to lead the Wizards into the postseason. Of course, I didn’t know the rest of the Eastern Conference was going to become the Leastern Conference, easing the path for the Wiz to get to the top of the Conference.

Davide Chinellato, NBA ItaliaI think the Wizards will make the playoffs, but they won’t get home-court advantage. Since they don’t play in the Atlantic Division, they’d have to pass the Hawks to get it and I don’t think that will happen. The Wizards depend too much on how John Wall plays, while — at least for now — the Hawks are a better overall team.

Adriano Albuquerque. NBA BrasilThey became the team that they were supposed to be in the beginning of the season. The players-only meeting and Nene’s message about “taking their heads out of their butts” worked, brought them back to Earth, and now they’re ready to soar again. John Wall is playing as the best point guard in the East (besides Kyle Lowry), Bradley Beal keeps on showing improvements in his sophomore year, Trevor Ariza came back in the same beat he was early in the season, Martell Webster is contributing, Nene is playing well on both sides of the court, and even Jan Vesely turned into a decent bench player. Yes, they will definitely compete with Atlanta for the non-division champion home-court advantage.

Akshay Manwani, NBA IndiaI think the more important point is that even if the Wizards don’t get home-court advantage, they could still win the first round in the 2014 postseason. Really, any of the teams between 3 to 6 in the East could end up beating the other. But the Wizards were always primed to do well this season with their mix of young talent and veteran presence on the team. A few reasons for their slow start could have been playing 15 of their first 26 on the road, where they earned a 12-14 record and their inability to close out clutch games. They are only 2-5 in games that have gone into overtime.

Morning Shootaround — Jan. 26


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Jan. 25

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Trail Blazers are more than just a two-man team | Shaw relished time with Vogel | Raptors weary of injuries | Heat forced to play waiting game with Wade

No. 1: Blazers more than a two-man team — The Portland Trail Blazers are riding the wave of a MVP candidate (LaMarcus Aldridge), a Most Improved candidate (Damian Lillard) and a Coach of the Year candidate (Terry Stotts) to one of the most surprising and impressive starts we’ve seen from any team in recent years. They have already equaled their win total from a year ago, after taking care of the Minnesota Timberwolves Saturday. But they are more than just a two-man team with one of the hottest coaches in the game. The Oregonian‘s Joe Freeman explains:

As the Moda Center masses gathered to watch LaMarcus Aldridge go head-to-head against Kevin Love and reignite the debate over which player is the best power forward in the NBA, a funny thing happened:
The Trail Blazers proved yet again they’re more than a one-man team.
With a difference-making outing from the bench, balanced scoring and meaningful contributions up and down the roster, the Blazers used a team effort to defeat the Minnesota Timberwolves 115-104 Saturday night at the Moda Center.
Oh, sure, Love and Aldridge had some sparkling moments and they provided enough highlights to satisfy a salivating sellout crowd. But their growing rivalry was more fizzle than sizzle as the Blazers (33-11) used a team-oriented approach to avenge a December defeat to the Timberwolves and equal the number of victories they had all of last season.
“One thing about LA — and we talked about it — the media and (the team) put more into it than he did,” Mo Williams said of Aldridge’s matchup with Love. “All he kept saying was, ‘Man, all I care about is the win. All I care about is the win.’ And I believe him. I thought he just came out and played basketball. He didn’t try to overdo it. He didn’t try to do too much. He wasn’t bigger than the game. I thought the game was more important than the matchup with him and Kevin Love.”
In the end, the Blazers won thanks to their bench, which outscored the Timberwolves’ second unit 34-15, and the sum of their parts rather than the talent of their All-Star. As usual, backup point guard Williams was at the heart of the Blazers’ bench, and he finished with 16 points, six assists and five rebounds during a flashy 25 minutes that featured behind-the-back passes, three-pointers and a relentless push-the-pace mentality.

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No. 2: Shaw relished time with Vogel: — Denver Nuggets coach Brian Shaw has nothing but love for his Indiana Pacers’ counterpart Frank Vogel. When you work as closely as they did, when Shaw worked as an assistant under Vogel prior to this season, a mutual admiration society (of two) can develop. And if familiarity with one another gives your current team an edge, as it perhaps did when the Nuggets snapped a three-game skid with a win over the Pacers, so be it. But the bond between these two men remains, regardless of the outcome of games. Candace Buckner of the Indianapolis Star has more:

As the story goes, Shaw would indeed listen to Frank Vogel and join his staff as an assistant head coach. Shaw became an integral part of the Pacers, influencing their play and developing lasting relationships with players. Saturday, as the head coach for the Denver Nuggets, Shaw faced his former team for the first time and recalled how his time in Indianapolis influenced his current mindset as a leader.

“I was coming from Los Angeles to Indiana,” Shaw said. “I had to learn how to do things a different way under Frank Vogel and being a part of the group that he has now, and I watched some of those players grow.

“Frank Vogel is a great coach. He comes from a video coordinating background so he believes in watching a lot of video and that was different for me. We had to come in every day and get 20 minutes every day of watching videos. Just watching how he organized practices every day and getting prepared for games, I learned from him.”

In the summer of 2011, as Vogel sought Shaw to join the Pacers, he pitched the family-friendly suburbs but mainly the opportunity for a young assistant with high aspirations.

“I told him he was crazy to go to ESPN, he should come work for us,” Vogel said. “We’re doing special things. I knew he wanted to be a head coach, and I really felt like staying in the trenches was his best way to do that and not just staying in the trenches for anyone but for a team that’s really doing some special things.

“And the first phone call, the first thing out of my mouth was, ‘Listen, we need to talk because we can really help each other.’ I was recruiting him to try and position himself but I really needed him as well.”

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No. 3: Raptors weary of injuries, especially after big night from Ross — Terrence Ross enjoyed the finest night of his NBA career against the Los Angeles Clippers, albeit in a loss. But his 51-point explosion was directly impacted by an injury to the man who has been perhaps the Raptors’ most important player this season, DeMar DeRozan. Injuries, the great equalizer for any team, are a concern for a Raptors crew, GM Masai Ujiri in particular, that understands the greatest of plans can be derailed by the wrong player going down at the wrong time. Cathal Kelly of the Toronto Star delivers the details:

A few weeks ago, GM Masai Ujiri was chatting about his short-term vision for this club. As you might expect, the short-term vision is all over the place. Everything depends on how they perform. He was certain about one thing.

“Injuries,” Ujiri said. “That’s what haunts me.”

Patrick Patterson had his nose broken by a Blake Griffin elbow. In a truly Raptor-y touch, Patterson was called for a foul on the play.

But he’ll be OK; and even if he weren’t, this team would survive.

However, without DeRozan, this is an untenable exercise. There can be no true tank now — it’s too late for that. But it would be a tank without volition. This team would get very bad, very quickly.

Nonetheless, DeRozan played 10 more game minutes. He came out before the end of the first half to get re-taped. He went for two more minutes in the second half before giving up.

“It’s a little painful right now,” DeRozan said, but didn’t seem terribly concerned. An X-ray was negative.

We’ll see in a day or two. If DeRozan plays Monday in Brooklyn, no harm. Even if he sits a game or two, no biggie.

But if this is the beginning of an extended absence, some hard questions will have to be asked about those 10 extra minutes, and putting this team’s leader in real jeopardy.

***

No. 4: Heat forced to play waiting game with Wade — Dwyane Wade isn’t the only NBA superstar whose injury issues have forced his team to adjust its long-term plans for this season. Kobe Bryant, Derrick Rose, Rajon Rondo and Chris Paul have all missed significant time for their respective teams this season. But none of those other stars toil for the two-time defending NBA champs. And the Heat, with today’s Finals rematch with the San Antonio Spurs on tap, still don’t know what to expect from Wade. He might very well sit out again today. The Heat have no choice but to play the waiting game with Wade. Joseph Goodman of the Miami Herald sheds some light on the Heat’s plight:

If this were the postseason, then Dwyane Wade would be playing.

Wade has missed four straight games do to pain in his knee, and could miss Sunday’s game against the Spurs as well, but he indicated Saturday that he’s only missing games because, well, these games aren’t really that meaningful when weighed against protecting one of the best players in the NBA.

“The playoffs are different,” said Wade, who spoke to reporters Saturday for the first time since scratching himself from the lineup last week. “If this was the playoffs, I wouldn’t have been out.”

Wade went through some of the Heat’s practice drills Saturday and worked on his conditioning in preparation for the Spurs’ first game at AmericanAirlines Arena since Game 7 of the 2013 NBA Finals. A final decision on his playing status likely will not be made until about an hour before tipoff, which is set for 1 p.m.

“I don’t know,” Wade said when asked if he would play. “Today was a good day just being back on the court and [Sunday] we’ll see.”

Wade, who has missed 13 games this season, hasn’t played since scoring eight points in consecutive games against the Wizards and 76ers. Before that, he scored at least 20 points in 10 of 12 games. Despite the sudden drop-off in production and games on the bench, Wade wouldn’t call his latest block of rest a setback.

“At that time it was a setback,” Wade said, referring to a comment he made after playing the Sixers on Jan.17. “Now it’s not … At this point there ain’t no setbacks, it’s just what I’m dealing with.

“It’s what I’ve been dealing with all year. I don’t know how much back I can go, so it’s the same thing.” 


VIDEO: RAnother huge night around the league is captured in the Top 10 plays

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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Tom Thibodeau could care less about aesthetics. The Bulls coach only cares about winning games … Might Carmelo Anthony be ready for an encore performance against the Los Angeles Lakers today? Could be … Jazz rising star Trey Burke won the battle of young point guards and the game against the Wizards’ John Wall … Lakers forward Pau Gasol delivers some painful truths about his team and their season, to date …

ICYMI of The Night: You didn’t think Kevin Durant was done, did you? He earned a night off Friday and bounced back in the fashion you’d expect from a man who has been destroying the competition all season. The leading candidate for the MVP kept up his torrid pace in the Oklahoma City Thunder’s win over the Philadelphia 76ers:


VIDEO: Kevin Durant makes it 10 straight games with 30 or more points while also notching a triple-double