WASHINGTON, D.C. -- More than 19,000 people were breathing the same tense air as Marcin Gortat and Roy Hibbert as these two giants stared intently skyward, ruminating over the last two days and looking towards the next two weeks. Within a second, the Pacers gained possession. Within another few seconds, the Wizards stole it for themselves.
From the first quarter, with John Wall and Bradley Beal poking the ball out of Lance Stephenson's and George Hill's hands, to the final seconds when Garrett Temple swung between Hibbert and David West for an offensive rebound to clinch the win, we were all breathing the same air. And we can joke as we do about fans going crazy for t-shirts and chicken sandwiches, but the Verizon Center crowd felt that intensity, too. They replied with their own intensity and gave the Wizards a long standing ovation as they exited the court.
"The building... was electric tonight," said Randy Wittman after the game. "You build on that. You can't ever experience the playoffs until you get there. That's why we want to continue to have games like this to set that up."
Just two nights removed from a disappointing loss against Phoenix, the Wizards punched out a convincing wire-to-wire win against the Pacers - the same Pacers that beat the Heat two nights ago, all but ensuring their place atop the Eastern Conference hierarchy. The difference between Wednesday and Friday for Washington? Focus and film.
"This is what we've been talking about heading into the West Coast trip. Our intensity level for 48 minutes had waned, and we lost that edge a little bit. ... We waited until we got down before we really played with effort and intensity."
Despite their conversations about what they had to do to fix their issues, the key to righting the ship wasn't harping on their errors on Thursday. It was harping on the things they did well by doing things the old-fashioned way: watching tape. It's fitting that a coach who prides himself on being old-fashioned would want to help the team get out of a rut the old-fashioned way, and while Wittman's never been one to embrace advanced statistics, he seems to believe in extrapolation.
"We showed nothing in the Phoenix game of when we were being embarrassed; [only] how we got it from 25 to four or three. This is how you have to play for 48 minutes if you want to be a good team, and they did tonight."
No tricks. No gimmicks. No players-only meeting like earlier this season when they stumbled out of the gate. Just positive reinforcement. They didn't watch their missteps, nor did they watch the first quarter when they matched Phoenix toe-to-toe. They only watched the part where they played the "right" way, and they extrapolated that behavior to an entire game. Intensity, defense, and focus.
The Wizards had dropped six of their last 10 games coming into Friday's bout against the Pacers, mostly because they took their foot off the gas. Twenty-four turnovers in Denver. A 25-point deficit against Phoenix. An overtime loss that was "given away" in Sacramento. The team clearly wasn't in sync, and something needed to be done.
"We didn't have a players-only meeting," Trevor Ariza said after the game. "We just sat around chilling with each other. We didn't do anything special. We're mature people, we know what we have to do, and that's what we did."
A few days ago, I questioned this team's identity, and I questioned whether or not they knew their own identity.
"We want to be a defensive team first," said Ariza. And maybe for the Wizards during these final 10 games of the season, that's what matters. Not being. But wanting. The desperation, the desire: it fosters intensity, and it drives focus. That's what the team needs before the playoffs. There's no thought about who's ahead of them in the standings. They know Charlotte and Atlanta are nipping at their heels to oust them out of their sixth seed.
"I don't so much stress finishing in the top six," said Wittman. "I want us to finish playing like this, and then all that stuff takes care of itself, where you finish. I don't want them focusing on fifth, sixth, fourth. I want us to focus on doing what we did tonight and then let the chips fall where they may. You're gonna lose a game playing with effort like that. And teams [are] gonna beat you, but we can't lose that."
"This was a playoff intensity game," Wittman said after the win. "I think [Indiana's] looking at us as we're looking at them, 'You know what? We're going to meet somewhere.'"