The NBA Playoffs have a way of making everyone look like a fool, except Randy Wittman for some reason.
For the second year in a row, Wittman has led the Wizards to an unlikely 2-0 series lead in the first round of the NBA playoffs. And for the second year in a row, we have no idea how we've gotten to the point where Randy Wittman is now 7-1 in road playoff games. Unusual things can happen in the playoffs (especially in a 4 vs. 5 series) but this? The system was not prepared for this.
It would be one thing if the Wizards were upsetting teams by playing at an extraordinarily high level. But once again, the Wittman is throwing out new wrinkles that have baffled opposing coaches. Last year, he used Nene to stretch Joakim Noah out and minimize his defensive impact, and then he gave Marcin Gortat all the touches he could handle to force Roy Hibbert to move around more on the defensive end in the Pacers series. Now, he's forcing the Raptors to adjust to a more aggressive Bradley Beal, Otto Porter's excellent off-the-ball game, and an unexpected flurry of threes (the Wizards are averaging 4.2 more threes per game in the playoffs than they did in the regular season).
The Wizards are also reaping huge benefits from playing Paul Pierce at power forward against Toronto, a move fans have been clamoring for all season long. When he was asked why he waited so long to harness the benefits of Pierce's ability to stretch the floor at that position, he gave a response that really makes you wonder if Wittman has been toying with fans all season long, via Jorge Castillo:
Wittman offered a two-fold explanation Sunday. First, the Wizards employ six front-court players and he wanted to utilize them throughout the season. Second, he worried the workload would drain Pierce’s aging body for when they needed his experience and shot-making ability the most.
"If he had played even at the 3 and the 4, you’re looking at the 36, 38 minutes, and I didn’t want to get into that for the majority of the season," Wittman said. "I didn’t want to wear him out just to get to the postseason and have nothing. I wanted to keep him at 28, 29 minutes throughout most of the year."
When you put it like that, it...actually makes a lot of sense. There's still room to disagree with the approach, but after a season filled with some decisions that have been hard to understand, slowly, we're starting to see Wittman's logic and why it's working for the Wizards.
As a result, there's been a lot of talk about Wittman being a "playoff coach" whose style just works better for playoff basketball. And while there may be something to that line of thought, but it comes with a caveat: It's easy to make your team look like it's improving in the playoffs if you deliberately save your best lineups and plays for the playoffs, even if it makes you look worse during the regular season.
Then again, the whole point of the game is to play your best basketball at the end of the season, isn't it? In the heat of the moment, the random minutes for Rasual Butler and Martell Webster may not make sense, but if it keeps them quiet when Otto Porter takes all their playoff minutes, maybe that makes it worth it. Likewise, seeing Kevin Seraphin play important fourth quarter minutes doesn't seem to make sense until you see him score buckets to fend off Toronto's late runs. If this is the way Wittman ensures the Wizards peak when the playoffs start, well, it's unusual, but it's hard to say it hasn't worked given how the Wizards have performed.
Now, Wittman has to show he can build on last year's success, rather than just mimic it. Oddly enough, the first step is showing he can lead the Wizards to wins at home, where the Wizards went 1-4 in last year's playoffs. If he can do that, then he still needs to show he's got something left in the tank for the second round, where they'll likely face the Hawks. If Wittman still has some aces up his sleeve to make that series competitive then we're just going to have to chalk it up to Wittman knowing how to push the right buttons once spring comes around.
Are we giving Randy Wittman too much credit here? There's at least a 95 percent chance that's the case. But you know what? After the year he's gone through, he deserves some respect for enduring the typhoon of criticism he's faced this season, sticking to his convictions, and waiting to make the changes everyone wanted to see until they would be most useful.
And if that proves the case, so be it. As Andrew Sharp chronicled here, learning to embrace a team that you desperately want to see change is weird and difficult. But at the same time, if it keeps working, rooting against success is even weirder and more difficult. If we can root for John Wall to prove his critics wrong, surely we can find a way to root for Randy Wittman to do the same, even if we're the ones who have been criticizing the loudest.