WASHINGTON -- When the Wizards set out during the offseason to add veteran talent, it was about establishing a new tone for the organization. This roster would be mature, professional, competitive and prepared -- characteristics that didn't always define the previous generation of Washington basketball.
On Sunday, even in the most frustrating of losses, we saw what that can mean in an important, must-win playoff game. While the big names on the Wizards didn't always step up as the Pacers won Game 4 at Verizon Center, the vets off the bench were the obvious silver lining in a frustrating night.
"That's what the bench is supposed to do. That's nothing that is supposed to be a surprise," said Drew Gooden, a key member of the lineup affectionately known as "the AARP Unit," after the 95-92 loss.
The lineup featuring Gooden, second-year guard Bradley Beal and three other veterans -- Al Harrington, Andre Miller and Martell Webster -- was easily the most effective lineup for Randy Wittman on Sunday. Built around three guys who hardly played or weren't even on the team, during the first half of the season, the group befuddled Indiana throughout Sunday.
"They kinda saved the day for us, in the first half and the second half," Wittman said after the game. "That's where we outscored them [in bench points], 32-2. So the bench was great. So I did extend it tonight, because of the effort that they gave."
Indeed, the Wizards did hold a 32-2 advantage in bench scoring on Sunday, only to have the starters get pummeled in exchange. Usually this season, we've seen the reverse trend, but this time around it was the starters blowing a big lead put together by the bench.
The second quarter, when Washington outscored Indiana, 29-11, was pretty much an AARP production. By the time Wall re-entered the game for Miller after an eight-minute rest, the elders had turned a one-point deficit into a 14-point lead.
"It's tough, man. We really did put ourselves in a position to win," Harrington said in the locker room. "It's upsetting when you come up short. Play here, play there could have made a difference in us winning, but I guess that's just part of this team still growing."
The narrative of inexperience surrounding this team has occasionally been perplexing, considering the Wizards mostly use veterans and currently have three players with NBA Finals experience (Gooden, Marcin Gortat, Trevor Ariza.) Only Beal and John Wall lean towards the green side, and as Wittman stated with a tinge of anger during post-game, that's never going to be an excuse.
"Age doesn't mean anything. At the end of the day we're all basketball players and that group was really playing ball. I think we got a lot of stops, that's where it all started," Beal, 20, said of playing with the vets. "We were sharing the ball with each other, everybody got a touch and were knocking down shots, that's what kept us in the game. Unfortunately we ended up giving up the lead at the end."
Plus-minus isn't always my favorite statistic, but it sums things up pretty nicely for this game. Other than Beal, Washington's starters all had negative figures, with Ariza posting a brutal minus-22. On the other hand, Beal and the four veteran reserves were all pluses, with Miller going for plus-18 in 16 minutes of action.
The AARP Unit had two extended runs in this game, and pretty much dominated both of them.
When Mike called this the "perfect series to bring [the AARP Unit] back for short stretches to begin the second and fourth quarters," it's easy to see what he was envisioning now. The Pacers seem geared in on every half-court set the Wizards run with their top unit, but haven't figured out the rotations once the bench guys came in.
With the need to win three consecutive games, it might be the time to further embrace the AARP Unit. This doesn't mean starting Gooden or benching Wall at the end of games, but as Randy showed to some degree on Sunday, he needs to be willing to attack Indiana with some different concepts when the starters aren't working.
Things may be getting dark in this series, but we can put our collective hope into every advantage the Wizards have. For now, the bench appears to be one of them, unlike earlier this season. It's a testament to the minor moves that Ernie Grunfeld made this year, even if his bigger picture appears less exciting.
We'll just have to see if they can really make a difference, or if the struggling core will prove too costly, like it did Sunday.
"Definitely. Witt is a guy that, he doesn't forget," Gooden said of playing the AARP lineup. "And I definitely see us getting another opportunity to go out there and help our team win, but things are not going right, and we have to trust Witt to make the right decisions on who he wants on the floor."