To John Wall, the way the 2014-15 season ended for the Wizards didn't feel a lot different than a year ago when they were eliminated in Game 6 to the Indiana Pacers at Verizon Center. They had two more regular-season wins and the same No. 5 seed.
"In my opinion, it's the same. You lose Game 6 at home, that's tough. We went through adversity throughout the series. These guys kept competing, kept fighting. ... We had a good opportunity ahead of us to try to make it to the Eastern Conference finals. That's the reason I sacrificed," said Wall, who played the last two games vs. the Atlanta Hawks with five fractures in his left wrist after missing the previous three.
And while the what-if game will be played all summer because of Wall's injury, there were distinct differences between these Wizards:
- They lost Trevor Ariza and actually finished with a better scoring defense. The Wizards were top 10 for two consecutive seasons with Ariza, who was their best one-on-one perimeter defender. They allowed him to walk, banking on the combination of Paul Pierce and Otto Porter giving them more versatility at the small forward spot at half the cost. Though the defense could be disjointed against elite teams and at key moments, they went from allowing 99.4 points to 97.8.
- When able to stay healthy, Bradley Beal showed he could consistently be a two-way player. When Wall went down, Beal added ball distribution to his repertoire. In the three games vs. Atlanta without Wall, Beal totaled 22 assists. And he kept the NBA's best three-point shooter in Kyle Korver under wraps. Korver shot 12-for-42 in the series, or 28.5%. If Beal and Wall can pick up in 2015-16 during the regular season playing on the defensive end, they'll belong in the discussion with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson as the NBA's best backcourt.
- The Wizards were a top 10 team in field-goal shooting overall and from the three-point line in the regular season, before Porter's emergence allowed them to use more small lineups (with Pierce at power forward) which produced even greater offensive success.
- End-of-game/quarter situations improved dramatically. It was an 11th-hour adjustment made by coach Randy Wittman that put Pierce in position to take advantage of the Hawks' switching defenses that got him the Game 3 winner. Pierce had a wide-open look he missed in Game 4 and made a wide-open three in Game 5 to put the Wizards ahead by a point. Most of these were created by ball and player movement, not 1-on-1 off-the-dribble individual efforts. Trailing 87-80 on Friday, Nene had a key uncontested layup out of the timeout that started the comeback. The Wizards were not this efficient in the regular season as their execution and attention to detail weren't quite the same.
The Wizards who lost to the Pacers last season relied on Beal to do everything, usually heaving low-percentage 20-plus foot jumpers, as Wall was taken out of transition and kept out the paint.
There is, in fact, growth. But will it stick? The roster will go through changes but the core will remain mostly intact. Wittman has another fully guaranteed year to find out.