May 16, 2017

Home Court Advantage

The morning after always sucks! Last night closed the books on this year's Washington Wizards season, the most successful by any account in 38 years. More wins than any year since the 1978-1979 season plus a deeper playoff run than any other season since that year and a division title, the first since, yep you guessed it, 1979. Despite all that, this sucks and it stings worse than any other year that I've been a Wizards season ticket holder, and not just because of the whiny crying way the Boston Celtics sent our team home. This could have been our year if things had broken right. And yes, I know that's a bit of a stretch.

I'm sure there will be lots of what if scenarios floated for this team in the coming days and weeks. Like I'm sure most Wizards fans, I'm thinking about that game two in Boston that we should have had with two good shots in the final five seconds of regulation that would have sealed the deal in that one and sent us back to Washington tied one game apiece. But I'm also thinking about another what if scenario, and that's what if the Wizards had just finished first in the conference. This year we didn't lose a single home game in the playoffs. It's not unreasonable to speculate that we would have been in the Eastern Conference Finals with four home wins against the Celtics.

So how feasible was that this year? Well, as it turns out, VERY feasible. This was one of those years when a low 50s win total got you the number one seed in the East. In this case, 53 was the number the Celtics needed to secure the top spot. There's been only one year other than this season in the past 10 seasons when 53 wins would have gotten you the one seed. In other words, it was extremely competitive at the top and the Wizards finished just four games back with 49 wins. Surely there were five wins that the Wizards could have pulled out over the course of the 82 game regular season to get to 54 and finish first, right? Well as it turns out, there were. Here's how I see the Wizards could have done it.

November 19 vs. Miami

Admittedly, the Wizards had a rough start to this season and to their credit, they fixed it. They are the only team in NBA history to start a season 2-8 or worse and end up 16 games or more about .500. When the Heat rolled into town on November 19 the Wizards were just 3-9. However, the Heat were not much better, sporting an oh so impressive 3-8 record through their first 11 games. This was a game the Wizards had to have and they came out blistering the nets, scoring 35 in the first period (also giving up 33). With two minutes to go in the half, they were up 4.

But then things fell apart. They gave up nine points in less than two minutes and ended the half down one. They then lost the third quarter by eight and got down by as many as 17 in the fourth before trying to come back. Ultimately they lost by just three. To a 3-8 team at home. This one should have been the turnaround game. Instead it sent the Wizards on the same course until later in December when they finally figured things out. This was not a quality loss or a moral victory type thing. This was also not the Miami Heat team that finished the regular season 30-11. The Wizards should have had this one.

December 6 vs. Orlando

If there's a Wizards game that I have been angrier with our team for their lack of effort and desire than this one, I can't remember it. Yes, the Wizards had a worse record than the Magic at this point in the season but this was a team that hadn't beaten the Wizards at all each of the previous three seasons and who had a roster that was and has been since just not talented enough to win a game on the road vs. a presumptive playoff team.

At halftime it was a 13 point game and not in the Wizards favor. By the end of three it was two points worse than it was at halftime. Verizon Center was about the quietest I've ever heard it, a combination likely of there being nobody there really and the Wizards' miserable on court play. At one point I was screaming so loudly at Bradley Beal because of his disengaged play that I sat down and shut up based on the looks the ushers in our section were giving me. Not that I would have minded really being thrown out of that game. On this night, the Wizards didn't even try.

November 16 at Philadelphia OR February 24 at Philadelphia

I get that it's tough to win on the road in the NBA. I also get this year that Philadelphia 76ers haven't been quite as historically awful as they have in years past. But I have to think that the Wizards could have come away with one road win in Philly in two chances.

I know what you are thinking...Joel Embiid is the future of the NBA and the Sixers were really pretty good with him in the lineup. Well, guess what? Embiid sat out both these games. 0-2 in Philly under those circumstances this year just won't cut it. I'm not asking for a sweep here. Just one game will do. After all, as I'll demonstrate if you keep reading, there are a couple of more games I could see the Wiz pulling out. These were also not buzzer beater losses. We're talking 7 and 8 points here.

March 15 vs. Dallas

From March 7 to March 13, the Wizards had an historical road trip, winning four of five on a west coast swing against Phoenix, Denver, Sacramento, Portland and Minnesota (the only loss). Never before had the Wizards or Bullets had such a west coast swing. Surely the first game back at home at Verizon Center vs. the lowly 28-38 non-playoff making Dallas Mavericks would have been a great return back to D.C. and winning ways at home.

Apparently not. A 10-2 start by the Wizards translated into a four point lead at halftime despite a notable lack of defensive focus. That four point lead swelled to seven by the end of three but things fell apart quickly in the fourth. Three minutes in it was tied and four or so minutes later it was a ten point lead, and not in the right direction. Ultimately the Wizards closed late before succumbing by five. In a game like that, playing an inferior opponent at home with potential future playoff seeding on the line and a halftime lead, you have to pull it out.

October 30 at Memphis OR
November 5 at Orlando OR
December 12 at Miami

So I'm not really saying the Wizards could have won all of these games that they lost. I obviously believe in home court advantage. On the other hand, I just need ONE of the three to get to the five extra wins I'm making the case the Wizards could have won. I've already made the case that the Magic and Heat were both either bad all season or in the first half of the season so I'll spare you more details except to say that the Heat boasted a robust 7-17 record before their December 12 win vs. the good guys.

If the Wizards had pulled one of those two Southeast Division games out, they wouldn't have needed to reverse their season opening second loss to the Grizzlies in Memphis to reach 54 wins. And I'm not saying Memphis is an easy place to win because it's not. But when you are up three with less than 20 seconds remaining you can't let Marc Gasol hit a three from wide open straight away center and then collapse in overtime. This has to be a win. If home court in the playoffs is so valuable (and I believe it clearly is), then pulling out game two at the end of regulation matters. I'm glad the Wizards made such light of Gasol's game tying shot and his two additional ones in overtime via Twitter the next day.

I'm for sure not trying to rub salt into the Wizards' wounds here. And God knows I hurt enough this morning. I think our squad played really well during their playoff run and I'm proud of everyone who committed to winning as many games as possible in the postseason. It was the greatest postseason run in almost four decades and the future has got to be way brighter than this time last year. I'm just saying what if...

May 6, 2017

Playoff Villains

I first bought Washington Wizards season tickets in the year 2000. I've been there for this team every year since. In 2005, the franchise rewarded me as a season ticket holder by making the playoffs for the first time this century. That would be the start of a four year run in the postseason that featured just one series win, the very first one played vs. Chicago in 2005.

Once Gilbert Arenas, Larry Hughes and Antawn Jamison got by the Bulls that first year, we ended up in a series with the number one seeded Miami Heat. Despite the sometimes close scores, it was not much of a series and it lasted just four games. The Wizards despite all their good play that year were no match for Shaquille O'Neal, Dwayne Wade (42 points in the series clincher) and company. It was a domination. After a 4-0 nothing sweep during the regular season, the Heat made it 8 losses in a row in a single season for the Wiz. It was humiliating. And just like that Shaq became my first Wizards playoff villain.

For the next three years, I forgot all about Shaq even while he and the Miami Heat won a Championship the very next year. For the next three years, the playoffs and hating people on the other team were all about LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. The 4-5 matchup in 2006? Cleveland-Washington. 2-7 the next year? Cleveland-Washington. 4-5 the year after that? Cleveland-Washington again. 4-2. 4-0. 4-2. Three first round playoff losses to the Cavs back to back to back.

So let's be honest. LeBron was generally speaking really good at basketball those three years and that can totally make a playoff villain. But that wasn't it with LeBron. It was the whining, crying, babyish, smug way he won. It was whispering in Gilbert Arenas' ear before a free throw. It was protesting every call. It was telling referee Danny Crawford that Brendan Haywood was trying to hurt him (Haywood was ejected). It was taking Darius Songaila's hand and hitting his own face and then flopping mercilessly (Songaila was suspended). It was all the nonsense that James used to get his way over and over and over again. As if playing the games on an even playing field wasn't enough. 

It was those three years that will make me never root for this guy. I'd rather have JaVale McGee win a title before I see LeBron win another. It was those three years that put LeBron in a category by himself as the ultimate playoff villain. And then it was over. No more Wizards playoffs for six years.

Nice flop, LeBron! Got Songaila suspended for game six though.
2014. New team. No more Arenas-Butler-Jamison big three. Enter John Wall, Nenê, Trevor Ariza, Marcin Gortat and Bradley Beal. Two rounds and out. Beat Chicago; lost to Indiana. The next year? Ariza out, Paul Pierce in. Two rounds and out again. Swept Toronto and bowed out to Atlanta. Those two playoff runs were great and when they were over Wizards fans were buoyed by the fact that if it wasn't for John Wall's broken wrist, there may have been an Eastern Conference Finals berth in there.

But one thing they didn't produce for me were any playoff villains. Jimmy Butler maybe due to his tete-a-tete with Nenê that got our big man suspended or Al Horford for his game winner in game five of the Atlanta series. But it's difficult to despise teams you beat handily like Toronto in 2015 and the Bulls the year before and honestly the players on both the Pacers in '14 and the Hawks the year after were just difficult to dislike those years. No villains there for me.

So now it's 2017 and the Wizards are back again in the second round of the playoffs and locked in a battle with the Boston Celtics after taking care of the Atlanta Hawks in six. And holy crap there are so many guys on these opponents to thoroughly loathe it's amazing. There are villains all over these teams. I knew I'd feel this way about the Celtics but honestly I had no idea that I cared enough about anyone on the Atlanta Hawks to dislike them even slightly. I guess it's the competition that bring this stuff out.

On the Hawks side of things, let's start with Dennis Schröder and Kent Bazemore. Both are decent players but they both clearly both think they are way better than they actually are. The whooping and celebrating by Bazemore when things are going well drives me crazy and Schröder even suggesting he's in the same league (metaphorically speaking that is) as John Wall makes me laugh. Bazemore also gets no love from me for the push in the back on Bradley Beal in game six after Beal made a layup. I'm really not sure Beal fell due to the push but the very act of pushing a defenseless player to gain no competitive advantage when he's in a dangerous and vulnerable position is dirty. That could have turned out really badly.

But the guy on the Hawks who I loved to see sent home for the summer was their so-called All-Star power forward Paul Millsap. Since he got his game handed to him in game one (19 points but just 2 rebounds) by Markieff Morris on Easter Sunday, Millsap had a good series, averaging 24 points and 11 boards over games two through five and dropping 31 and 10 in the Wizards game six clincher. He for sure some damage to the Wizards but that's not why I was glad to see his season over. It's the whining, crying and flopping he did on and off the court that's got me upset. This dude's supposed to be an All-Star and one sub-par game against Kieff and he's complaining like the second coming of 2009 LeBron James. Good riddance.

If the Hawks got my blood boiling a little, there's no comparison to how I'm feeling about the Boston Celtics right now. I expected this. I mean there have been regular season in-game and post-game run-ins with Jae Crowder and Marcus Smart the last two years, two role players who use their physicality to gain an upper hand every now and again against opponents. This year featured Crowder poking John Wall in the nose after a game in Boston and Boston police standing between the locker rooms minutes later. The Wizards followed that up with the funeral game, one of the simultaneously silliest, immature and awesome stunts any Wizards team has pulled ever. It helped that the game was a Wizards blowout.

In this series Crowder and Smart have been doing their usual things but honestly other than Smart undercutting Bojan Bogdanovich on a three point attempt in game one and two consecutive flops for fouls from the same guy against John Wall in game two, those two have been pretty quiet. By the way, why don't superstar calls apply to John Wall? How is he getting whistled for two questionable calls back to back? And does the NBA still fine for flopping? It seems like that was either an official short term initiative or they've just gotten tired of fining. 

But there is no shortage of playoff villains on the Celtics side of things. Al Horford made sure his foot was well-placed under Markieff Morris to knock Kieff out of game one before Smart tried it with Bogey later in the same game. But the two guys who are going to have me yelling the loudest tomorrow afternoon are Isaiah Thomas and Kelly Olynyk.

So let's face it, Thomas is good. On offense. I don't understand how this dude hits half the stuff he hits around the basket. The only thing I can think is that his release comes from a spot vertically that is so much different than any other player in the NBA that no defender can get the right angle to defend him properly. But he's also taking his shots when he can under the protection of the refs and the rules I guess. The jumping backwards into Kelly Oubre bloodying Kelly's mouth in game two minutes after hitting Otto Porter in the nose with his head got zero fouls. And the constant yapping from a guy who can't D up makes me nuts too.

But let's also face it, Kelly Olynyk is just plain dirty. And I guess he's smart enough to get away with it most times. Olynyk is going to draw a lot of booing and I'm sure some things way less civil than booing tomorrow evening after his shoulder to the neck screen on Kelly Oubre made our Kelly lose it and get suspended for bumrushing and knocking down Olynyk in game three. But that's not the first time Olynyk has done something like that. He had a raised forearm to the neck screen on Oubre about two minutes earlier in Thursday's game and you can ask Kevin Love about his broken arm courtesy of Olynyk a couple of years ago. I have to believe Verizon Center's crowd will be doing everything they can to make this guy feel insecure tomorrow.

In the NBA, rivalries are made in the playoffs. Forget divisions and the regular season; there is nothing like a playoff series to solidify some hate between two teams. The only thing that makes these rivalries more heated is throwing a couple of guys out on the other team that you just plain love to hate, some villains that you want to see get what's coming to them on every play if possible. We got that in spades this year in Schröder, Bazemore, Millsap, Crowder, Smart, Horford, Thomas and Olynyk, although the kind of nastiness Olynyk is known for has no place in this game.

Game four is tomorrow. Let's tie this thing up, Wizards, then go to Boston and take game five.