WASHINGTON -- Shaquille O’Neal affectionately called them “the others.” Around Michael Jordan, they were known as “the Jordanaires.”
The supporting cast behind superstars John Wall and Bradley Beal in Washington doesn’t have a memorable nickname, but if they keep winning games, someone may need to come up with something memorable.
After all, Washington didn’t capture its first division title in three decades thanks to Wall and Beal only. And that same supporting cast who helped the Wizards ring up 49 regular season wins will have to come up big in the postseason for the Wizards to make any noise. From starting forward Markieff Morris to bench players like Kelly Oubre, Jr., the Wizards are relying on big production from several players who have little playoff experience.
In Game 1 of the 2017 playoffs against the Atlanta Hawks, Washington got off to something of a shaky start. The Wizards were whistled for 14 fouls in the first half, sending the Hawks to the free throw line 22 times The Hawks ripped off a 17-2 run to finish the first quarter, and the Wizards' bench, in particular, struggled in the first half, combining for 1 field goal, 1 assist and 7 fouls in the first half.
Backup guard Tomas Satoransky had arguably the bench’s best stat line in the first half, and he finished with a -5 plus/minus in just 2 minutes. While the Wizards went on to win Game 1, 114-107, they had to overcome that brutal first half that had them down 3 at the midway mark.
“We put ourselves in such a bad position with our fouls,” said Scott Brooks. “We went over the back, that’s two free throws. We gambled, that’s two free throws. The last play of the second half, we gambled in the backcourt, they got two points. But I thought we didn’t play like we’d been playing.”
One Wizards player who didn’t seem to have any trouble finding his postseason footing was Morris, who was making his playoff debut after 448 regular season NBA games. Whether the motivation came from his twin brother Marcus in the stands wearing Markieff’s jersey or a pregame pep talk delivered by Wall, Morris came out turned up. He scored five points in each of the first two quarters and managed to get under Hawks forward Paul Millsap’s usually calm demeanor to the point where the two exchanged words heading off the court at halftime. (“Just set the tone,” understated Morris. “Just two guys playing hard,” no commented Millsap.)
“I’m just going headfirst every play,” Morris said after the game. “It is what it is. If we’re going to jostle the whole series, then that’s what it’s going to be.”
“Like I said last year when we first got [Morris], I was excited,” said Wall, referring to the midseason trade with the Suns that brought Morris to the District. “He changed everything right away for us. We didn’t have to double in the post anymore. If any team had a four man who could score, we could go right back to [Morris] and he could score in the post. So he changed our team a whole lot. He understands that. But the most important thing is, he’s one of those guys who bought in. He’s doing everything to help our team win. When he’s playing as well as he did today for us, we’re unstopabble.”
The player the Wizards really need production from off the bench is second year swingman Kelly Oubre Jr. In 19 games this season, Oubre averaged 6.3 ppg and established himself as a versatile defender, as he became an integral part of Washington’s rotation. Like basically everyone else on Washington’s bench, Oubre got caught up a few times in the first half, and said the second unit didn’t need Brooks to read them the riot act to realize things weren’t going so great; when the Hawks surged to an 8-point lead, “we pretty much got the memo,” Oubre noted. But Oubre bounced back with a strong second half and finished with 11 points to lead the Wizards’ bench.
“Kells, we need his intensity the whole game,” said Morris following Game 1. “We need him to foul, to just play...wild.”
“I mean, you see my hair?” Oubre said with a smile one day later. “It’s pretty wild. That’s just my character: I’m a wild player. I’m a wild guy. I just bring the energy, I think that’s what he’s trying to get at. I just bring the energy and make sure I get the team amped up.
And a “wild” player doesn’t have to be a wild card. Brooks believes the inexperienced Wizards can have a positive impact throughout the postseason even without the benefit of having been there before: “If you play hard, that’s all you have to do. And that’s the pressure: The pressure is just playing hard. I tell our guys that all the time. You have to play hard to give yourself a chance to have success. Experience is great, but if you have good experience and you don’t play hard, I’d rather not have experience. Our guys have done a good job of just coming in and playing hard. Last night was a well-played and a hard-played basketball game.”
For Washington the focus shifts now to Game 2 on Wednesday (7 p.m. ET, NBA TV). Win, and they can head to Atlanta this weekend with a firm grip on this series, with a chance to return to the Conference semifinals for the first time since 2015, when they lost to the Hawks.
In Wall and Beal, the Wizards have their superstars in place.
Now that supporting cast needs to pick up where they left off in Game 1 and produce like they’ve been there before.
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