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Morning tip: Ready or not, it's probably time to credit Wittman


Morning tip: Ready or not, it's probably time to credit Wittman

The ongoing debate that has no end in sight is whether this has been coach Randy Wittman's ploy all along -- aka, the long con --  to wait until the postseason to unleash his best lineups to catch the Eastern Conference by surprise.

Of course, the strongest reaction for people outside of Washington, and even inside, is that they're not buying it. Paul Pierce playing at power forward seemed like a no-brainer especially since he logged so many minutes there with the Brooklyn Nets with good success in 2013-14. There's no way that Wittman would've jeopardized their seeding in the regular season, when Wizards could've nabbed as high as No. 2 before the All-Star break and still were in play for the No. 3 spot going into the final week? Pierce playing at the four was the subject of plenty chatter during training camp, but after the Wizards got off to a 31-15 start that faded.

"If you look at it we only used it three times. We used it against Atlanta when we were down, twice, and then one time against somebody else (Milwaukee)," point guard John Wall said after Wednesday's practice as the Wizards await their second-round opponent after sweeping the Toronto Raptors in four games. "It was very rarely that we used it."

Given Wittman's preference to be tight-lipped about obvious lineup changes and adjustments, even getting testy when questioned too vigorously about it, it's not very hard to see it is possible, or even likely. That he knew it would work this well? Very unlikely. No one did. (My colleague Ben Standig astutely made the Verbal Kint-to-Keyser Soze comparison last Sunday).

Last season, the Wizards experimented with Trevor Ariza there but he's not as versatile offensively as Pierce or as strong physically.

"Martell (Webster) would be at the three and Brad (Beal) would be at the two. Guys are used to it now," Wall said of why the smaller lineup wasn't as productive then as opposed to now. "We know that's where Paul played last year so coming into the season we thought we were going to do a lot more but coach just did a good job of saving it. He never told us."

The Raptors ran small lineups, taking center Jonas Valanciunas off the floor and using Amir Johnson in his place and Patrick Patterson at power forward. Both are undersized for those positions but have three-point range. The Wizards faced it three times in the regular season and were shredded as Nene had difficulty as the only big on the floor (Marcin Gortat never played after the third quarter vs. the Raptors until the postseason). 

The Wizards weren't able to take advantage of a conference that weakened after the All-Star break and were content to settle for the No. 5 seed for the second season in a row. Pierce, Wall and Nene did a lot of resting as they relinquished wins. Drew Gooden played a lot more while Kris Humphries, who missed 17 games with a groin strain, fell out of the rotation and has yet to work his way back. Gooden's three-point shooting and presence changed the tenor of the season.

"His energy. He plays hard whether he's making shots or not," Wittman said. "He brings us good energy and I think that's contagious. ... He doesn't have to make shots to get into that mode of playing hard."

Think Wittman just realized that about Gooden? When the Wizards made a run to the East semifinals last season, it came after signing Gooden, who had been working out in secret at Verizon Center, after the trade deadline. 

"It's opened up things that teams really haven't adjusted to in the regular season because now Drew wasn't used as much as he's being used here in the playoffs. Now he's getting the opportunity in the playoffs, playing big minutes, showing what he can do at the stretch four," Pierce said. "Teams are seeing a different Washington team, not the one they'd grown accustomed to in the regular season. ... Then you got a point guard who's constantly creating, getting into the lane. It's a different offense now."

Then Wittman adjusts the lineup to Pierce for Gooden at the four spot, with Wall, Beal, Otto Porter and Gortat. While it's easy to ridicule Wittman for waking up on third base rather than crediting him for hitting a triple, he told Pierce before Game 1 in Toronto that's where he'd spend more time. Wittman is 7-1 on the road in the playoffs and before dismissing the first-round upset of the Chicago Bulls last year because Derrick Rose wasn't available, the Wizards are 2-2 vs. them this year with Rose and Pau Gasol.

Wittman's salty demeanor is partly to blame for the lack of respect. But he has dealt with questions of his competence for most of his career. National pundits suggested that he should be fired because he'd "lost the locker room" -- a hollow cliche that's an indicator that the speaker has no tangible intel from the actual locker room. Even after consecutive road losses to the Minnesota Timberwolves and Philadelphia 76ers in late February, Wittman's job never was in jeopardy.

Through all of it, Wittman stubbornly stayed this mind-bending course. Instead of caving into Gortat's way of doing things, Wittman cut his $60 million center's minutes until he conformed. And he has gotten Nene to use his massive frame to rebound better and defer to Gortat offensively so he can get more touches going to the basket. Gortat shot 74.3% from the field vs. Toronto. Beal isn't settling and is taking more shots. Wall is focused more on his on-ball pressure defense than scoring. Both are getting to the foul line the way an elite backcourt should. Coaching is as much about people as it is greaseboards and analytics. 

"It makes the floor so much more spaced for him. Now you have people helping. If people don't help, he's going to be open. He does a great job of screening," Beal said of Gortat's resurgence. "We need him to just continue to do it. We just got to give him the ball."

A Bobby Knight disciple, Wittman is old school and loyal. When in doubt, he has given veterans (Rasual Butler) the nod over young players (Porter). With so much size on the roster, Wittman is the kind who wants to exhaust every option to make it work with the traditional two bigs on the floor before opting for Plan B. Showing this sort of flexibility simply could be part of his growth in a league that has changed. 

Respected vets who have played under Wittman who are no longer here -- Andre Miller, Al Harrington and Trevor Ariza -- have sworn by his competence. When this season began going sideways, Pierce, who won't hold his tongue when he sees something wrong much less give any ringing endorsements if undeserved, put the blame on the players' fragile psyche (Gortat and Harrington said this on two occasions last season). Then Pierce spoke truth about teammates who didn't have families (read between those lines) for enjoying the NBA lifestyle on the road a little too much being the culprit for their inconsistent play (translation: The problem wasn't coaching). 

Perception makes it hard to accept that Wittman, who can be downright surly, is such a good people person with his players but somebody has to get the praise. Sam Cassell isn't on his staff anymore to get it by default.   

There aren't a lot of secrets come postseason. Teams have scouted one another to the umpteenth degree. They know every play call, and the only thing that may change is the name or hand signal to initiate the action. The best teams, however, are able to execute in flow and outside of a structured offense. Maybe having Pierce has helped Wittman's confidence as much as he has Porter's.

"We just threw Paul in there once every blue moon. With him we don't run any of our sets," Wall said of Pierce playing the four. "(It's about) guys making plays and guys being able to step up and make shots. ... Everybody's locked in knowing what everybody's running."

The Wizards' next opponent, either the Atlanta Hawks or Brooklyn Nets, won't have much time to prepare. They're focused too much on each other going into Game 6 tonight. If the Hawks can close the series, it'll give them just one day to prepare before hosting Game 1 vs. the Wizards at 1 p.m. ET on Sunday.

That's advantage Wizards, even though they'll be on the road, because they'll be in position to flip the series by stealing home court right away. The quality of the opposition gets tougher as teams move on in the playoffs, and this includes the chess match that happens on the sidelines. 

This isn't to say that Wittman deserves a medal for doing a job that pays him $3 million per year. Criticize how he has gotten his team to this point and his peculiar methods (and that's fair), but what matters most is they're playing their basketball in the postseason -- again -- with a better chance to go deeper than a year ago. 

[RELATED Bradley Beal didn't expect to be in this position so soon

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Phil Chenier becomes fifth Bullets player to ever have his jersey retired


Phil Chenier becomes fifth Bullets player to ever have his jersey retired

On the newest banner that hangs from the rafters at Capital One Arena, a small microphone - embroidered with a white 33 - is subtly stitched into the bottom left corner. 

You'd barely notice it was there; Phil Chenier certainly didn't.

Chenier, who had his #45 jersey retired tonight during halftime of tonight's Wizards-Nuggets game, didn't even notice the mic, added to signify his three decades as a broadcaster with the team.

"I had no idea there was even a mic on it," Chenier said, laughing. "I'll have to go back out and look at it some more."

Despite the Wizards' 108-100 loss, the night was first and foremost a celebration of Chenier - the 5th player in franchise history to have his number rasied in the rafters. He joins Earl Monroe, Elvin Hayes, Gus Johnson, and Wes Unseld as the only players to achieve the honor so far.

"To be up there with the other 4 names means a lot – people I had the fortune of playing with," he added. "I remember my first day of practice and I had just watched this team play in the finals and now I’m plopped down with Wes Unfeld and Earl Monroe and Gus Johnson. It seemed like they accepted me from the get go."

Many from that 1978 Championship team were in attendance on Friday night, watching as one of their teammates cemented his professional legacy. For Chenier, that acceptance as an All-Time Bullets great is at the core of why he played the game.

"You know, when you play this game, you play for acceptance," he said. "You want to be the best, you want to be accepted. Having players and childhood friends – and of course, your family – here, you’re surrounded by so many people that meant a lot to you both before and now. It’s a really humbling feeling.”

It was hard to find someone in DC without something good to say about Chenier on Friday night. Even in the basement of Capital One Center, after the Wizards' fifth loss in seven games, head coach Scott Brooks took a moment out of his press conference to praise Chenier. 

"[Chenier] is a great ambassador and we all love him," Brooks said. "It's well deserved. It's going to be pretty cool seeing his jersey every time we step into this building."

Fans left the arena with a commemorative Phil Chenier cut out. Phil Chenier left the arena with his number retired. The experience was, according to the man himself, everything he thought it'd be. 

"You don’t know what the emotions are going to be..." he told media members after the ceremony."...Obviously it’s something I thought about, but it really was exciting to see the 45 up there and my name."

Then Chenier cracked a smile.

"I’m glad it’s over with."

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Wizards lose again, this time to Nuggets as offense falls flat

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Wizards lose again, this time to Nuggets as offense falls flat

The Washington Wizards lost to the Denver Nuggets 108-100 on Friday night. Here's analysis of what went down...

Another loss: It is becoming more and more clear that the Wizards need a shot in the arm, something to change the direction of where they are currently heading.

Whether that will come in the form of All-Star point guard John Wall returning from his months-long absence, an adjustment to their lineup or strategy, or something else entirely, the losses are piling up and at a tough time in the season.

With another loss on Friday night, their seventh in their last 11 games, the Wizards are now 40-32. They have plenty of room to still clinch a playoff berth, as their magic number stands at two, but they only have 10 games left to secure their all-important playoff seed.

Both the Pacers and Cavaliers, two teams just ahead of them in the playoff race, won on Friday.

The Wizards lost their second straight game and again offense was their problem. They scored 100 points, six below their season average, and committed 17 turnovers.

Big third quarter: The Denver Nuggets have emerged as a team on the rise, a young squad with burgeoning stars that could someday soon make some noise in the Western Conference. The reason is because they are very good on offense. Defense is a much different story.

That was not the case on Friday night, as the Wizards had all sorts of trouble scoring in three of their four quarters. They managed just 43 points by halftime, the fewest the Nuggets have allowed in a first half since Jan. 27.

The Wizards, though, did get cooking in the third quarter. They erupted for 33 points in the frame while shooting 63.2 percent from the field and 58.3 percent from three. Markieff Morris, who finished with 17, had 11 points in the third quarter and Bradley Beal (24 points) hit three threes.

The Wizards also found a solution for Jamal Murray, one of the Nuggets' brightest young stars. He had 20 points at halftime, but went scoreless in nine minutes in the third quarter. Kelly Oubre, Jr. (15 points) was among those who gave him trouble. Murry finished with 25.

The big third quarter reflected well on the Wizards' ability to make adjustments, but their 24-point fourth quarter flipped the script again.


Didn't force mistakes: The first time these teams squared off back in October, the Wizards forced the Nuggets into 23 turnovers. This game was a very different story. 

The Nuggets didn't commit their first turnover until midway through the second quarter and had only three by halftime. They had just 10 turnovers for the game.

Denver deserves some credit for limiting their mistakes, but all of it did not reflect well on the Wizards' defense. They didn't put enough pressure on the ball and failed to disrupt passing lanes like they usually do. It was uncharacteristic, as the Wizards entered the game 10th in average turnovers forced.

Not creating mistakes allowed the Nuggets to get way to many field goal attempts. Though they shot just 43.5 percent, Denver managed 108 points. And not getting turnovers offered the Wizards few opportunities for easy transition buckets.

Turnovers were one issue with the Wizards' defense. So was defending the perimeter, as the Nuggets shot 17-for-34 (50%) from long range. It is worth noting the Nuggets were without their leading scorer Gary Harris, a guy who is dangerous from long range.


Special night: Halftime offered a memorable moment in franchise history as legendary player and broadcast Phil Chenier had his No. 45 jersey retired by the team. His longtime broadcaster and friend Steve Buckhantz hosted the ceremony with about 20 friends and family members of Chenier's seated behind him. Buckhantz had opening comments, then majority owner Ted Leonsis spoke as everyone in the crowd stood and cheered.

Then, it was Chenier's time to talk. He thanked his former teammates, members of the organization and those close to him. He kept his composure until the very end when he brought up his mother, Peggy, who could not make the event. Chenier choked up and wiped away tears as he described what she has meant to him in his life.

It was a powerful moment and a great ceremony to honor a guy who has impacted the lives of many in the D.C. area. Now, his No. 45 will hang up in the rafters forever. That banner, by the way, features a picture of a microphone and the phrase '33 years,' signifying how long he was the color analyst for Bullets and Wizards games.


Up next: The Wizards do not have a game Saturday, though they are going to practice and Wall is expected to take a big step forward in his rehab. Their next game is Sunday at 6 p.m. on NBC Sports Washington when they host the Knicks. That will also be a special game, as the Wizards are set to honor the 40th anniversary of their 1978 NBA championship.

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