In hindsight, it feels like it was always supposed to end this way. The almost-50-win season and the routs of title contenders and the while-facing-elimination game winner seemed to be in defiance of historic norms. And the Wizards’ 115–105 Game 7 loss to the Celtics, of course, was where the team would run into the invisible roadblock that has stymied all major Washington sports teams for the past two decades. The conference finals, the golden stage reserved only for a sport’s premier teams, have eluded D.C. teams since 1998, and the Wizards since 1979.
Last week, the Capitals fell one win short of the conference finals, despite being the best regular-season team in hockey. Last October, the Nationals fell one win short of the NLCS. Both teams have regularly collapsed at precisely that point in the postseason: running straight into the barrier with Swiss precision. But the Wizards hadn’t come this far in almost four decades. The last time they had played in a Game 7 was in 1979. They weren’t even supposed to get this far. This was all different, until it wasn’t.
So, what went wrong in Washington’s Game 7 loss? When I took stock of the Wizards’ season in February, their lack of depth and Scott Brooks’s history of postseason strategic failings were some of my biggest concerns. In Game 7, both issues reared their heads.
For much of the season, Brooks made the best of what he was given. He developed Otto Porter and Kelly Oubre Jr. into a top-flight wing and a solid rotation player, respectively, and rode his starters more than any other coach in the league. That led the Wizards to exceed expectations all year. But, on Monday night, he inexplicably abandoned his proven formulas. Late in the third quarter and early in the fourth, a critical stretch of the game, he played Ian Mahinmi, Bojan Bogdanovic, and Jason Smith, three players that played fewer than 200 minutes together throughout the regular season, at the same time. Smith took the floor with 1:12 left in the third and the game tied. From that moment, the Wizards, ill-equipped to keep up with Boston’s speed or spacing, began hemorrhaging points, allowing the Celtics to race out to the lead (as large as 13 points) that would last them until the end of the game.
Washington’s frontcourt backups were spotty at best this season. All year, John Wall and the team’s first lineup would be forced to fix the mess created by the second team. To deploy a platoon of the team’s least-reliable rotation players during key minutes of an elimination game was to attempt an experiment with no track record of success against tough competition. Brooks forced his starters to carry a heavy minutes load all year and, for the most part, it worked. Why, with the season on the line, and Kelly Olynyk cooking, did he decide to rest his best bigs?
But Brooks’s most perplexing decision was to shorten his already-miniature rotation. Oubre, a developing offensive wing and one of the team’s best defenders, saw just six seconds of court time after previously averaging almost 17 minutes a game during the postseason. Oubre will now spend the summer wondering why his coach didn’t trust him in a game where his skills were clearly needed. The impact on the forward’s confidence may be something that lingers much longer than the pain of this loss.
For the first 12 games of the postseason, Brooks did just fine. He played chess with Mike Budenholzer and Brad Stevens just well enough that Wall and Bradley Beal could push Washington over the top. But this is a low-margin strategy. To expect two players to repeatedly have perfect nights while defenses concentrate on them, knowing that their teammates will struggle, is a losing proposition.
Beal had a career night, scoring a personal postseason-best 38 points on 12-of-22 shooting, but after a strong first half, Wall went cold, missing his last 11 shots, including seven 3s. But the postseason exit is anything but Wall’s fault. Washington would literally not have gotten this far without him. "Forty-eight to five," he said Monday night after the loss. "Our bench had five points." When the reserves are outmatched by nearly a factor of 10, it’s foolhardy to blame the starters.
This was a strategic and managerial failure. Ernie Grunfeld did not build this roster, especially the bench, to survive the postseason gauntlet, and at a key time, Brooks made puzzling decisions that would impair his already-overmatched squad. For almost two entire rounds, the Wizards avoided the Playoff Brooks that repeatedly failed OKC’s most talented teams. But at the worst possible time, they injected him straight into their bloodstream.
Brooks is a solid coach, and one that Washington needed to recover from the troubled Randy Wittman era. Every rotation player on the team improved during his first year. But while his player development abilities have never been in doubt, his strategic shortcomings have consistently emerged at the worst possible times. Still, he can play only the players that he is given; this isn’t completely his fault. Next year, probably with a shorter rotation, the Wizards will need him to work magic for the team to improve.
Grunfeld, on the other hand, is not as solid a GM as his tenure would suggest. Do not let Wall and Beal’s heroics sell you on Grunfeld’s work. Washington was built to be exactly this good, no better. In the end, the obvious personnel problems that were papered over during the year ended up costing the team this series. This season was an enjoyable ride, but don’t be fooled: There is a 14-year track record here. Grunfeld will have some tough offseason decisions to make (first and foremost, deciding what to do about Porter’s expiring deal), and if he makes the wrong ones, this season may end up being another what if inflection point.
As the years have gone by, when a Washington team has failed to make a conference finals, it has become increasingly easy for fans to blame bad luck or convoluted curses or the divine. But the source of the problems this time was clear: They came from the top.
An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that the Wizards won the NBA title in 1979; they won the NBA title in 1978.