INDIANAPOLIS -- The basketball world didn't care much about the Washington Wizards before the postseason began. They were a newcomer on the scene -- a young team that hadn't made the playoffs in several years. Bradley Beal wasn't a household name. Trevor Ariza wasn't a memorable one. John Wall was an All-Star, but up until this season he hadn't delivered a playoff victory of note. The Wizards were a team full of promise and potential that had never delivered on the hype.
In the span of two weeks, that has changed in a hurry.
They dismantled a veteran Chicago Bulls team in five games in Round 1. On Monday night, they toppled another playoff-tested Indiana Pacers team in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. Doubters should no longer be looking for a reason not to believe in the Wizards -- the reality is that they're just better than their opponents and playing the best basketball of their season.
"Everybody realized that we can't really trip in playoffs," Wizards center Marcin Gortat said after chipping in with 12 points and 15 rebounds. "It's all about giving 110 percent. Here you can play your best basketball. You fight for your name, for your respect. At the end of the day, the whole world is watching you."
The Wizards continue to earn their respect one game, one rebound at a time. They are a tough team; a group that is enjoying the ride they started in Chicago a couple weeks ago. In many ways, the Wizards' ascension into the national conversation is best embodied by the emergence of Beal. The soft-spoken assassin delivered again on Monday to the tune of 25 points, seven assists, seven rebounds and five steals -- becoming just the fifth player over the past 50 postseasons age 20 or younger to have multiple 25 points games in wins, according to ESPN Stats & information. ( Derrick Rose, Tony Parker and Magic Johnson are the others.)
Beal tried to credit his teammates for his success, admitting that Ariza is the one who always tells him to "stay in the moment."
"The way I think about it is I'm 20 years old," Beal said. "I'm playing in the playoffs, something I always dreamed about so why not embrace it? Why not accept that challenge? And just have fun with it at the end of the day -- that's all I'm doing. I'm just having fun on a great team. And whenever we play together, we play the right way. It motivates me to be the best I can be."
Beal's energy also motivates his teammates. They have watched him blossom this year and they know he is just getting better -- a scary thought for the rest of the league. While those just tuning in are marveling at Beal's success, his teammates always knew that this is the player he could become all along.
"I see him every day putting the work in," Wizards big man Drew Gooden said. "I got a nickname for him, 'Young Pro.' When other people ask me about his work ethic, I say he's always in the gym working on his game. So tonight every time he hit a shot I was like, 'That's why you put the work in.' He was hitting his shots when the shot clocks were going down, guys in his face, step backs, 3s. Every time he shoots it, not only me, but the whole team knows it's going in."
That kind of confidence is uplifting for the Wizards -- and completely demoralizing for the Pacers. They knew very well how good the Wizards were after watching them destroy the Bulls. But now, like the rest of the country, they are learning firsthand just how dangerous this group from the nation's capital can be.
"They have a complete team," Pacers star Paul George said. "They've got solid rotation guys. Then their starting five is all the pieces that you need. They've got a star point guard, a great shooting guard, a veteran wing in Ariza. Their bigs, they're both inside-out guys and they play well with one another so I think everything just came together for them. They understand who they are."
Most importantly, they understand they haven't accomplished anything yet. The Wizards are taking the underdog approach and riding with it. They know all the national attention can go away with one bad stretch. But they also appreciate that they are in the middle of a franchise rebirth -- a fact that the entire team takes pride in.
"It's fun, but it's just the beginning," Gortat said. "Don't get excited. It was just one game. This series might go different ways. We might lose another four and go home. So it was just one game. That's it. We just don't get excited. We're a really good team. We can fight against anybody and we can win against anybody. So we just got to stay focused and play another game."
As long as Beal continues to develop into an even bigger star and the veterans play the way they have throughout the postseason under Wall's direction, there will be plenty more games for the Wizards over the coming weeks.