WASHINGTON – It was mid-November when Wizards center Marcin Gortat said his team had "one of the worst benches in the league."
Though you might have questioned his tact, Gortat wasn't wrong. Through the All-Star break, Washington had the league's third worst bench NetRtg, just behind the 27th-ranked bench of the 9-47 Brooklyn Nets.
Upgrades came in February. The Wizards got Ian Mahinmi back from injury, traded for Bojan Bogdanovic, and signed Brandon Jennings. After the break, they had the league's 10th best bench NetRtg.
John Wall and Bradley Beal are stars. The biggest reason the Wizards finished with a top-four record in the Eastern Conference is that their stars stayed healthy. But those stars can't be on the floor for 48 minutes, even in the playoffs. Though Russell Westbrook doesn't want to talk about it, the minutes that a team plays without its best player(s) can be the difference between a win and a loss. Every possession is critical.
In these playoffs, the Washington bench has again had its issues. Through the first four games of their first-round series with the Atlanta Hawks, the Wizards had been outscored by 35 points in 81 minutes with at least two reserves on the floor. Mahinmi (calf strain) has been unavailable, Bogdanovic missed 11 of his first 12 3-point attempts of the series, and Jennings got outplayed by Jose Calderon in Game 4.
The Wizards' starting lineup, which played 467 more minutes than any other lineup in the regular season, has led the playoffs in minutes played. It's a very good lineup and the Wizards have the ability to keep either Wall or Beal on the floor for the entire game. They can win some games with a bad bench. In fact, they did just that in Games 1 and 2 of this series.
That wasn't the case in Game 5 on Wednesday, though. With the series tied 2-2, Game 5 had multiple swings and went down to the wire. The Wizards held on late for a 103-99 victory, having done just enough defensively against Paul Millsap (8-for-19 shooting) and having made just enough mid-range jumpers and floaters against a sagging Atlanta defense.
And they couldn't have done it without critical contributions from their bench. In a game of runs, an 8-2 Wizards' run early in the fourth quarter was huge, and it was driven by the energy of Jennings and Bogdanovic.
With the Wizards up three, Bogdanovic grabbed an offensive rebound between two Hawks and got to the free throw line. Less than a minute later, Jennings stripped Calderon and took the ball the other way for a layup. And on the Wizards' next possession, he shook Calderon, got into the paint, and dropped the ball off for a cutting Bogdanovic, who tossed in a circus shot on the other side of the basket.
That bucket produced the loudest ovation of the night in the Verizon Center and helped fuel the Wizards' best defensive stretch of Game 5, which led to a nine-point lead with eight minutes to go. The Hawks climbed back to within two, but never had another chance to tie or take the lead. In fact, the last offensive possession on which Atlanta could have tied the game was the one where Jennings stripped Calderon with just over 10 minutes left.
"We got a couple of defensive stops," Jennings said. "That kind of changed the game. With John and Bradley logging so many minutes, when we are out there, we have to take advantage. And that's what we did tonight."
"That's what we have to do from the bench," Bogdanovic added. "Brandon did a great job of putting pressure on their point guard and we had a couple of steals, a couple of easy buckets."
Bogdanovic finished 14 points on just seven shots from the field, Jennings had three assists, and the Wizards played the Hawks even in 19 minutes with at least two reserves on the floor. They even survived a few possessions of Bogdanovic playing the four against Millsap.
It wasn't a convincing performance in any way or in any category for the Wizards. But it was enough to get an important playoff win.
Every East playoff team has been flaky in its own way. Even the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers haven't played anything close to 48 minutes of good basketball. The performance of the Wizards' bench could be the difference between a team that struggles in the first round and one that could follow up its first division title in 38 years with its first run to the conference finals in the same span.
"They were all ready to play much better. The defensive spark they gave us inspired our guys. When you play hard and play for your teammates, that's how you inspire them. And it's contagious."
Maybe Wednesday's performance was something to build on.
"They were all ready to play much better," Wizards coach Scott Brooks said of his reserves. "The defensive spark they gave us inspired our guys. When you play hard and play for your teammates, that's how you inspire them. And it's contagious."
Stars who can carry an offense are the most important thing in today's NBA. But Wall and Beal can't carry a bench that's dead weight. On Wednesday, the load was light enough to get the Wizards one step closer to the conference semifinals.
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