A No. 4 seed isn’t bad at all, especially since hardly any objective person would’ve guessed that’s where the Wizards would land for the playoffs earlier this season.
After Saturday’s last-second home loss to the Miami Heat, and the Toronto Raptors’ win over the N.Y. Knicks on Sunday, that’s all set.
John Wall’s hope of staying at least a No. 3 seed is gone. So no matter the first-round opponent – the Wizards will hold home-court advantage for the first time since 1979 --- getting to the conference semifinals will likely mean a meeting with the No. 1 seed Cleveland Cavaliers.
The Cavs have fallen into a first-place tie with the Boston Celtics but they do hold the tiebreaker.
Everyone should have a healthy fear of postseason LeBron James. There’s too much evidence that suggests it’s stupid to not beware no matter how badly his team has played since the All-Star break.
But this is probably the better path for the Wizards, who match up well with the defensively challenged Cavs. They play an open-court style with high-volume three-point shooting, which is to their liking.
The type of teams that give the Wizards the most difficulty?
The Heat (0-3), Utah Jazz (0-2), Dallas Mavericks (0-2) and to a lesser extent the Celtics (2-2).
The Wizards failed to win the season series with any of them and looked their worst against teams that are physical and play with high IQs.
The Heat and Jazz have erasers in the middle who make those finishes at the rim for Wall almost impossible. And they have rabid defensive guards who never die even when they appear out of a play. They don’t give up after being screened. They don’t concede transition baskets. The Mavs arent a good team and lack a true center, using Dirk Nowitzki as their five instead, and gave the Wizards all sorts of problems.
Aside from Rick Carlisle being a masterful defensive coach -- the only NBA coach to play a zone for four quarters in a game during preseason, perfecting a system that would ruin James' first championship run in Miami -- they have the interchangable parts to confuse the Wizards. Harrison Barnes, Dorian Finney-Smith and Wes Matthrews are good defenders who can switch and wreak havoc on the perimeter which provides the cover fire for the vulnerable Nowitzki in the low post.
The Wizards had trouble, or lacked the confidence, to figure it out. The grit that defined them during their two-year playoff run under previous coach Randy Wittman, who had them as a top 10 scoring defense, is gone. They lost it during Wittman's final season a year ago and haven't been able to get the mojo back.
Part of the reason is because the personnel is much different and less experienced. Part is because this is Scott Brooks’ first year at the helm and he still has a ways to go into molding these Wizards into his vision. There was a lot to fix in a short time and that he's gotten this far alone is surprising.
The Celtics don’t have a dominant big like Rudy Gobert (Jazz) or Hassan Whiteside (Heat), but Al Horford sets the screens, makes the reads on the handoffs and gets them open shots. It’s why he averages 5.0 assists per game as a center.
But when Boston is shredding the Wizards, it’s because they're physical. Pending on how the game is being officiated, Jae Crowder, Marcus Smart, Avery Bradley and Horford thrive while the Wizards tend to focus on calls they don't get and losing focus. They don't adjust. They continue to pick up fouls out of retaliation themselves.
Just because the Wizards couldn’t get higher than a No. 4 seed, however, this isn’t a disaster. Maybe the Cavs do what the Cavs usually do with James in his second tour by advancing to the NBA Finals.
These Cavs, however, are very beatable. They’re not they type of truth machine that the Wizards should fear.
Wall can exploit Kyrie Irving just as the score-first point guard does others. Iman Shumpert isn’t a Bradley Beal stopper. Richard Jefferson will draw assignments on both, but that leaves Otto Porter spotting up from the arc. Markieff Morris can match Kevin Love inside and out and if Marcin Gortat isn’t in a rhythm they can go to Ian Mahinmi vs. Tristan Thompson.
And they can throw multiple bodies at James by using length (Porter, Kelly Oubre) and size (Morris).
If it's Boston as the No. 1 seed and possible second-round opponent, the matchup is vastly different. While Isaiah Thomas takes care of a lot of the scoring for Boston and he has shooters everywhere if he's taken away, coach Brad Stevens ultimately wants stops.
They're a more blue-collar group that can play on the Wizards’ psyche in ways that Cleveland cannot. In ways that the Toronto Raptors, who the Wizards swept in a first-round series in 2015 despite being a heavy favorite, do not.
Stylistically, the Wizards match up better with Cleveland. And in the event they were to meet and get past them, it doesn’t mean they’ll get past the conference finals.
They’ve got a lot of work to do to get ready for the postseason, and most of it will occur between the ears.