Let’s take a second to establish the facts of the situation – Randy Wittman’s Washington Wizards are now up 2-1 against the East-best Atlanta Hawks, winning Game 3 despite being bereft of their most effective offensive player in John Wall.
Wittman’s Wizards dealt with the Raptors in four games, barely breaking a sweat as they swept Toronto, culminating with a 31-point blowout in Game 4.
They were the first team in these playoffs to reach 5-0 when they took down the top-seeded Hawks on their own floor, and followed it up with Paul Pierce‘s incredible buzzer-beater to push their 2015 playoff record to 6-1, the best mark in the postseason.
And yet Randy Wittman is still widely panned. His strategies are criticized and his playcalling is routinely second-guessed by media pundits and social media users.
It’s time to change that.
Wittman has taken a Wizards team that, despite starting the season 22-9, finished it with a worrying 18-23 slide that included two five-game losing streaks, losses to the Timberwolves, Pistons and Sixers, and eight losses in their last 14 games to back into the No. 5 seed.
Contrast that with those playoff numbers and the Wizards appear to be a different team.
An offense largely predicated on shooting long twos over three-pointers much to the chagrin of efficiency die-hards everywhere has morphed into a beautifully flowing motion offense emphasizing the advantages of their offensive players. The Wizards are taking (nearly 25 three-pointers attempted per game after just 17 per game in the regular season) and making more three-pointers than ever (league-best 43 percent from deep in the postseason), and that has helped open up the offense and a spike in offensive efficiency.
Big men Marcin Gortat and Nene have both been fed inside the paint or in their mid-range hot zones, while Otto Porter has been coached up into a reliable and dependable shooter and admirable defender – something that cannot be credited to chance or good timing, but almost assuredly to good coaching.
The team is balanced, but not the kind of balanced that has undone the Hawks in the playoffs thus far. Atlanta’s starting five was voted Eastern Conference ‘Player’ of the Month for January to reward the outstanding balance on display there, but it has been found out in the postseason.
With no bona fide ‘give me the ball’ superstar to close out tight games, the Hawks’ late-game offense has been circling the drain since Game 3 of the first round.
Washington’s version of balance plays far better when you factor in the game-dominating abilities of Wall and Bradley Beal, two players both capable of commanding the ball and willing their team across the finish line. That’s not a coincidence, and the Wizards are hoping Wall can return from his hand injury to help continue the playoff push.
The defense may be lacking the lockdown defender other playoff teams boast – Draymond Green, Jimmy Butler – but it has done a terrific job of disrupting Atlanta’s offensive sets, rotating quickly and effectively onto open shooters. It has been an absolute maelstrom of swiping hands and limbs in the paint, preventing both Al Horford and the husk of Paul Millsap from gaining an edge.
And the decision to bring in Pierce? His best days are behind him, but would you argue against putting the ball in his experienced hands with the game on the line? We’ve seen Pierce come up big time and time again in these playoffs, and he did it again with the Game 3 game-winner. Wittman has also made the adjustment of sometimes playing small with Pierce at the 4 after barely doing it in the regular season.
Wittman’s offense might not be revolutionizing basketball or setting any statistical records, but it’s getting the job done in the postseason. Some key adjustments have been made, and the players have evidently bought into what he’s doing. It’s time to give him some credit.