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...