Originally Posted 3/3/2016
Part of the fun of being a sports fan is making bold predictions. You envision the best-case scenario for your team, the one that could happen if absolutely everything breaks right for your squad, and then you rationalize why it will happen. Convincing yourself is easy- for a passionate sports fan this takes mere minutes- but it requires considerable time and thought to make sound arguments that you can defend to your buddies. Most of the time, your fantasies will never be realized. But making these types of guesses are great for giving yourself something to dream about, which is worth any hit you might take to your credibility as a sports guru. And in those rare occasions when your sports dreams turn into reality… well, the only thing better than your team surpassing expectations is being able to say you called it from the beginning.
Earlier this week, I was going through my annual playoff-preparation process of making bold predictions for my Washington Wizards. While rationalizing my arguments, what began as a hope-generating exercise quickly morphed into an epiphany. The revelation: the Washington Wizards are going to the 2016 Eastern Conference Finals! Before you dismiss this as the delusions of a DC enthusiast, bear with me and listen to the rationale. Because while the odds of the WizKids winning the East is 40/1, the more you think about it, the more obvious it is that this team reaching the third round of the playoffs is the most plausible outcome.
End of Regular Season: Just a couple weeks ago, before the All-Star break, it felt like a reach to argue that the Wizards were going to make the playoffs at all. But after last night’s win against the Wolves, the team only sits ½ games behind the 8th spot in the East and only 2 ½ games out of 5th place. The team is finally finding some reliable depth, as Alan Anderson and Markeef Morris are proving to be leaps and bounds above the replaced Dejuan Blair and Kris Humphries in terms of basketball skills. Factor in Bradley Beal getting his legs back underneath him and Nene making timely contributions, and the Wizards are sure to make strong improvements over the first half of the season. No longer are we relying on John Wall to put the team on his back game in and game out. These developments, plus a manageable schedule and fading competition for the final playoff spots, will allow the team to move back into and upwards in the playoff picture. At their best, the Wizards could contend for the 5th playoff or even 4th playoff seed. However, once you consider the inevitable disappointing losses and #soWizards moments, it’s more likely they end up 6th, behind the Hawks and Heat, and ahead of the Pistons, Hornets, Pacers, and Bulls. This will put the Wizards in line for a first round matchup with the 3 seeded Boston Celtics.
First-Round Series: At first glance, a series against the Celtics is a horrible matchup for the Wizards, who have gone a dismal 0-4 against Boston in the regular season. However, a look at recent DC playoff history reveals that this is exactly the matchup our fans should be rooting for. First, in the NBA playoffs, talent routinely trumps intangibles such as hustle and determination, as the game slows down, players increase their focus, and wins come down to big players making big plays. Player for player, the Wizards’ roster is better than the Celtics’, and the playoff atmosphere will prove that. John Wall has numerous physical advantages over his counterpart Isiah Thomas, and we’ve already seen that win-or-go home situations transform Bradley Beal into a clutch, superstar caliber player. Add to that increased contributions during the playoffs from Nene and the aforementioned additions to the DC squad, and the Wizards will clearly have an upper hand to the home-court advantaged Celtics. Sure, during the regular season, Brad Stevens has outclassed and out maneuvered Wizards coach Randy Wittman. But as we’ve seen the past two seasons, playoff basketball turns Randy into a different animal, a master strategist who can make effective in-game adjustments and outwit opposing coaches who’ve previously bewildered him. Moreover, Randy and his squad have a history of being road warriors, swiping away home-court advantage in their last four playoff series. This matchup will prove no different, and the Wizards will wipe the floor with the Celtics, easily taking the first two games on the road and winning the series in five games.
Conference Semi-Finals: After earning a few days of rest as a result of a quick playoff win against the Celtics, the Washington Wizards will head up to Toronto for a rematch from last year’s first round series against the Raptors. Most likely, the Raptors will be coming off a longer, tougher series against the Bulls or Pacers, where they will have faced both scrutiny and self-doubt. Though the team from the North will be a harder matchup for the kids from the nation’s capital than Boston, the WizKids will still have several critical advantages. One that shouldn’t be underestimated is the anxiety that the Raptors will encounter from playing the team that swept them just a year ago. Paul Pierce is no longer around to “call game,” but Toronto will surely still have demons to exercise from getting blown out at the hands of John Wall and Co. twelve months ago. They’ll be pressing, making uncharacteristic mistakes, and the Wizards will be able to capitalize and take advantage. It’s also important to note teams generally don’t win at important stages until they’ve been there before and learned the needed lessons that come from disappointment. Everywhere in sports, from Jordan’s Chicago Bulls to Lebron’s Miami Heat to the Peyton’s Denver Broncos, we’ve seen that champions are forged through fire. In recent history, only the Golden State Warriors have come out of nowhere to advance far in their championship pursuit without previously facing adversity and failure. The Wizards have been two games away from the Conference Finals the past two seasons, while the Raptors haven’t made it out of the first round. Consequently, the Wizards, and not the Raptors, will have the mental fortitude and required tenacity to advance to the next round. Expect this series to end in Game 6 at the Verizon Center, where Wizards fans will actually turn out and give their team a much needed home-court advantage.
Eastern Conference Finals: After dispatching of the Raptors, the Wizards will finally move on to the next phase in winning an NBA championship: the Eastern Conference Finals. Of course, this will be a matchup against Lebron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. I’ll wait until this occurs to make a case for how and why the WizKids will prevail, though this will be much harder to convince myself of. But just getting here will be a rewarding experience and certainly the pinnacle to-date of every Wizards supporter’s fandom.
I acknowledge I haven’t ruled out the possibility that I’m blinded by my rabid loyalty to my home team and hopes for basketball glory in DC. Still, at worst I’ll be out the $20 I’m wagering on the team to make the Conference Finals and at risk of being branded a Wizards fanatic. But according to intuition and (reasonably) sound logic, the more likely result is that I’ll have some extra cash and be rooting for John Wall to end Lebron’s streak of consecutive NBA Finals appearances. In either case, believing that the our team can achieve such a lofty goal gives our fans something to hope for and makes watching Wizards basketball all the more engaging and fascinating. And when the Wizards do beat the Raptors to advance to a series against the Cavaliers, just remember that you heard it here first!
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