The Bulls have too much respect for the Wizards, their first-round playoff opponents to say it—they’re not the type of team to make comments that become bulletin-board material anyway—but if, to a man, they were all given a dose of truth serum, they’d probably admit that they’re secretly grateful for the way Brooklyn shamelessly appeared to duck them at the end of the regular season.
Some of that is because it paves the way for a potential second-round series with familiar foe Indiana, a team that plays a style they can manage and was reeling in the second half of the season, but also because Washington is an inexperienced bunch when it comes to the postseason. That isn’t to say the Wizards aren’t talented, as evidenced by their 2-1 regular-season mark against the Bulls and even some success against during some of their more dismal recent campaigns.
But the playoffs aren’t regarded as a young man’s game and even though Washington has plenty of veterans—from the underpublicized starting frontcourt of Trevor Ariza, Marcin Gortat and Nene, to reserves like Martell Webster, Al Harrington, Andre Miller and one-time Bull Drew Gooden—its two stars and faces of the franchise are All-Star point guard John Wall and second-year shooting guard Bradley Beal, neither of whom are older than 23.
Wall has developed into an upper-echelon floor general, a speedy playmaker and one of the league’s most explosive talents in the open court, but who has also honed his half-court game to become a savvy distributor and a more consistent shooting threat. Beal, only 20, complements his backcourt mate perfectly, as he’s been billed as a sharpshooter, but is also equipped with the strength and athleticism to get to the rim and finish, as well as the confidence to make big shots in the clutch.
But while there’s no question about the guard tandem’s ability, this is the first time Beal and Wall have been in a spotlight so bright, and facing one of the league’s premier defensive strategists in Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau won’t be an easy task. The tandem will have moments when it shines, but with Thibodeau’s adjustments and stalwart defenders like Jimmy Butler and Kirk Hinrich on the case, with the likes of All-Star center Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson there for support, it won’t be surprising if Washington’s youngsters struggle more often than not.
The aforementioned veterans will also be integral to any success the Wizards have, as Gortat has been terrific after being dealt from Phoenix, Ariza has quietly put together one of the best campaigns of his career, Webster has been solid off the bench as a sharpshooter and the underrated Nene’s value was probably most evident when he missed significant time due to injury, only returning to the lineup recently. Harrington, once he got healthy, has also contributed, and late-season additions Miller and Gooden have made their presence felt in spurts.
There’s nothing that Washington is truly lacking from a personnel standpoint, but they’re not viewed as the toughest defensive unit, which is what the playoffs tend to emphasize and the Bulls happen to specialize in. While a game-changing player can also carry a team in a series, it remains to be seen whether either Wall or Beal, both in the postseason for the first time, can be that type of individual weapon.
Although the Wizards have a bright future and deserve kudos for ending their postseason drought—head coach Randy Wittman, in the final year of his contract, probably doesn’t get enough credit for staying the course—facing the Bulls in the first round isn’t the most ideal scenario.