Playoff basketball! Well, for the Wizards, at least. For now, the Knicks are precariously placed in eighth place in the East, tied with the fading Atlanta Hawks. Much ado about nothing until more wins are tacked onto the season’s tally and the word “clinched” emerges from the wilderness. To prep for this idiosyncratic meeting of the minds, between Wittman and Woodson, I called on the judiciousness of Conor D. Dirks of Truth About It. TAI is one of the finer members of the TrueHoop family, as they run a tight ship, and frequently put forth a unique cocktail of humor, enthusiasm, astute analysis, and originality. I encourage you to follow both Conor and Kyle Weldie (TAI’s founder) on Twitter, and to cite TAI as your number one source of all Washington professional basketball matters. Moreover, to hone in on your grasp of the uncanny ‘Zards, you can find two other back-and-forths between me and Conor from earlier this season: here, and here.
Last time these two teams met, this happened, simultaneously handing the Knicks their ninth home loss of the season, and propelling the Mike Woodson-led “Blame Beno” movement to the forefront of New York’s discombobulated agenda. The domain of the “worst Knicks losses in 2013-14” is cold and dark, but the late game collapse against Washington at least belongs in the conversation. What, if anything, does this moment mean to you?
CDD: I almost loved this moment more for the Woodson reactions that would follow than I did for the Wizards win. Almost (said as I furtively scratch my neck, feel the dull tug of world-weary, forgotten hairs that will never know the glory of a non-disposable razor, and say “I NEED THIS”), but not quite.
This is “brightest timeline” Bradley Beal. He’s long, strong, and down to get his layup on. Last season, which was Beal’s rookie year, in a January 7 game against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Beal hit a game-winning leaner from around the free throw line. Since then, he’s developed an undeserved reputation as a clutch player, and this play against the Knicks only served to reinforce that belief. If anything, pressure has had a deleterious effect on Beal’s scoring during “clutch” situations this season. In the last five minutes of games within five points, Beal is shooting 34.7 percent from the floor overall, and 35.7 percent from behind the arc. Still, it does feel good to say Beal has ice in his veins, so I don’t judge those who wish to continue. They have to follow their hearts.
Over the last three games, the slashing Bradley Beal you see in this video has surfaced. Against the Hawks last Saturday night, he tried to get his shots closer to the basket. Lawd, he tried. It didn’t quite work out (he was 5-for-15, and a team low minus-20 in a win) and we rewarded young Brad with the equivalent of an L.V.P. award in our own corner of the internet. Against the Bobcats and the Celtics, though, Beal found his focus, and suddenly the tag-on, wide-framed Ray-Bans Beal likes to wear in the locker room made perfect sense: he was a stat nerd waiting to be pushed forth from the amniotic stew of Randy Wittman’s datavoid of a game plan. He went 8-for-12 against the Bobcats and 7-for-8 against the Celtics. And these were good shots.
For now, most of those frustrated with Beal’s poor shot selection have fingered Randy Wittman as the prime suspect, and justifiably so. Beal has said as much, when asked: “those are shots Witt wants me to take.” Wittman, for his part, is not shy about telling folks where they can put their numbers. It’s difficult to come to any real conclusion, though. These are assumptions about based on isolated quotes (some of that is, of course, that Wittman won’t answer much of anything regarding “numbers”).
It’s like doing police work on a serial killer, I think. We think we’ve got our guy. There’s pressure from the fanbase to lay blame, so we make a hasty arrest. Then Wittman is jailed, and he can’t hurt anyone else. Spouses celebrate, many couples reinvigorate their marriages with rare affection. We think we’re safe. The Wizards hire a new coach, and … “LOIS, THERE’S ANOTHER BODY. BRAD BEAL IS DOING IT AGAIN.”
The Wizards clinched their first playoff berth since 2008 with a 26 point win over Boston on Wednesday night, and have gone a respectable 10-8 during Nene’s absence (including wins over Toronto, Brooklyn, and Indiana). Does a ticket to the postseason automatically deem this season a success for Washington?
CDD: Depends who you ask. Without starf***ing, I can tell you that John Wall has the right attitude. He’s happy as hell right now, and because he’s young, he might be vulnerable to a letdown game or two, but he doesn’t see the first Dougie he busts out (or are the kids doing the Nae Nae now?) as the Everest of the 2013-2014 season. This is what he had to say after the Wizards clinched a playoff spot against the Celtics:
“It’s great for me, I mean you celebrate tonight and get ready to go on the road and win another game. That’s the main thing for me is to try to finish the season as strong as possible and prepare ourselves for a great playoff seed spot. But I put all the pressure on me in anything we do, losing, winning, or anything like that. That’s just the way I am and that’s how competitive I am so for this [to happen and] to do it with a great group of guys means a lot.”
D.C. is a strange sports town. The pitiful, abhorrent Washington Football Team was a bigger story on the day the Wizards clinched their first playoff spot since 2008 because they signed DeSean Jackson. To the casual D.C. observer, the Gilbert Arenas playoff years are summarily reduced to “oh, right, they were good for a minute, with that guy, what’s his name?…with the guns?” So, to many, a Wizards playoff game is just another venue to trod into with boat shoes and neon-rimmed plastic glasses (or pastel-colored polo shirts for the ladies), hoping the fellow intern or consulting associate you brought is “chill” and will “dig the game” and will maybe “start sexting during the work day.” In that sense, yes, making the playoffs is enough for certain folks.
There is, however, real, albeit more tempered, excitement among the team and long-time fans. There has been a long procession of cathartic moments as the franchise finally moves on from the unfortunate end of the Arenas era and the utter despair of the Blatche/McGee/J-Craw era. Getting over .500 for the first time against Portland. Wall being selected for the All-Star team. This gif of a briefly vulnerable Wittman and John Wall hugging was an Internet winner, the relief of playoff validation made infinite loop, but also eliciting a “not-so-fast” reaction from some, including Adam Rubin, one of my colleagues at TAI:
“I understand the celebration, but it does just reinforce the fact that the Wizards are not a real NBA team. This is not so much an indictment of the current roster but of the long history of accepted futility that leads to people celebrating the fact that we avoided what would have been an absolutely horrendous failure of a season (i.e. not making the playoffs).”
Washington isn’t New York, where if you wish, you can stay out drinking until the bagel shops open up the next day, and where coaches like Mike Woodson are sniffed out as impostors early. Expectations for quality are criminally low (Comcast Sports Net’s Chris Miller said last night that he thinks Wittman should get some votes for coach of the year). The city has a tendency to adore winners, however modest the accomplishments may be. And yet, Ted Leonsis hasn’t rolled out the “Mission Accomplished” banner as of this writing. Progress?
Whereabouts on the space-time continuum do Drew Gooden and Otto Porter fit?
CDD: Otto Porter, mon petit prince. Otto must exist in a shielded place, a place that existed long before galactic semen was corrupted by the stirrings of microscopic life, beneath the shell of a cosmic turtle whose eggs are stars, a home that serves as much to incubate him from mean men as it does to keep his brilliance from colliding with the preconceptions of bust-sayers in a way that would put Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia to shame. “Eureka,” sayeth Poe, “space and duration are one.” For every inch he is granted by Randy Wittman (and there have only been inches), he takes an inch.
I WAS SO WRONG ABOUT DREW GOODEN. Riddle me this:
“There is a story that a man and not a man saw and did not see a bird and not a bird perched on a branch and not a branch and hit him and did not hit him with a rock and not a rock.”
How is this possible? Drew Gooden!* If every act of hitting also partly misses, it must also not hit. Drew Gooden has been the antithesis of NBA wisdom, and the thesis of Wittman’s “Good Shot” term paper. He’s lights out from mid-range, and according to him, “still Drew Gooden.” Which, I don’t know, could mean absolutely anything. He’s a hit for now, but he’s still Drew Gooden, maybe.
*Plato (I think) would say “A eunuch who did not see well saw a bat perched on a reed and threw a pumice stone at him which missed.”
Wednesday’s win over the Celtics delivered us yet another quirky Marcin Gortat-related instance, where he cheekily joined the C’s foul line huddle. This comes in a season where we have been blessed with the “Polish Hammer” ripping a towel on the sidelines, and advocating the place of 1-on-1 fighting in the NBA. How have you judged Gortat’s debut season in D.C.? Is there an obscure song that might help to symbolize the Pole’s performance?
CDD: Gortat’s season with the Wizards has been an unmitigated success. Let’s not forget about the price the Wizards paid for him (their 2014 first-round pick), which was undoubtedly steep for a “rental.” As followers of the Knickerbockers, you know that trading first-rounders can impoverish a team of one of the best NBA assets: youth. But even judging Gortat’s season in the context of the loss of that pick, I’m well pleased he became a Wizard. The trick will be to re-sign him at a reasonable (ha!) rate. The Wizards, ironically, are no good at tricks.
TAI’s Kyle Weidie had this to say after Wednesday night’s win against the Celtics, and I think the conclusion is about as correct as one can come:
“When Gortat is on the court this season, the Wizards allow an opponent Offensive Rating (OffRtg—points scored per 100 possessions) of 102.9. When he’s off the court, there’s a 6.3-point increase in points allowed (109.2). Last season the Wizards allowed an opponent OffRtg of 102.4 when Okafor was on the court, 104.0 with him off. Gortat is clearly more of a difference-maker, and he clearly is a season-saver.”
Much has been made, and rightly so, of John Wall’s breakout season, but Gortat has the highest on-court/off-court differential of any Wizard (plus-12.8).
After the first game against the Knicks this season, I asked Gortat about some visible frustration I saw going against Kenyon Martin in the post. He responded in a typically candid fashion by saying that the Knicks were trying to guard him with “puppies” while Nene drew the bigger defender. I know he makes the Wizards PR team eternally nervous, but he’s replaced the more somber leadership of Emeka Okafor with a confrontational brand of humorous honesty that has won him the respect of his teammates, even Nene, who is absolutely holier than thou.
It may not be obscure (or at least it wasn’t when it was released), and it may be awful, but I think this Savage Garden song sums up how Grunfeld and the Wizards feel about Gortat.
Gortat does miss an occasional bunny, though.
Washington is 29-23 since that fateful mid-December victory at the Garden, while the Knicks are an even 26-26. New York, however, has gone 12-3 over their last fifteen and have done so by outscoring their opponents by 6.7 points per 100 possessions. Who wins tonight, and why?
CDD: The Knicks will win tonight. Because of course they will. Because it only makes sense for the Knicks to beat the Wizards. Embrace the narrative. Can’t you just hear some old hat crooning “The New York Knicks were desperate, and the Washington Wizards overlooked them after clinching a playoff spot.” He might even continue to say “The New York Knicks had too much talent to stay as bad as they were for as long as they did.” F**k it, he might go all the way and say it could be “too little too late.” Then he will descend to #HotSportsTake hell, where he’ll be met by the original Chris Berman, who has since been replaced by a robot who was programmed to believe that puns are the highest form of comedy.
Distrust of the overly aged aside, I do think that the Knicks win this one by nine points. The final score will be 108-99. Here these two teams are, like patients etherized upon a table, both in the Eastern Conference “playoff race,” and the Knicks, on the surface at least, are playing really well. Against the see-saw Wizards, who prefer to orbit a .500 record than become a solar capture in another, greater system, that is probably enough.
Alright, sir. I appreciate the bountiful well of Wizards-centric sagacity, may the best
coached team win.