Look around the the NBA landscape and not many talking heads and national media are picking the Wizards to win or even be competitive in this first-round series with the Chicago Bulls that begins Sunday. Not that John Wall or anyone here cares that much, but they approached Thursday's practice with a vigor that suggests they're prepared for the biggest moment of most of their careers.
They've beaten the Bulls two of three times this season, and split the 2012-13 season series 2-2. But then again, the Wizards had no national TV dates and they were bumped off the one appearance they had scheduled vs. the Cleveland Cavaliers going into the season. Eighteen out of 19 predictions here went for the Bulls. The Wizards were ranked 14th out of the 16 playoff teams, including behind the Brooklyn Nets who they beat in all three meetings. Another national publication picked the Bulls in a sweep.
"Those are their opinions. My job is to go out there and worry about the Washington Wizards, how we're going to play basketball, how we're going to play our defense, how we prepare ourselves in practice everyday and in shootaround and let your game do the talking," said Wall, a first-time All-Star who many questioned whether or not he was worth the $80 million max contract extension he signed last summer. "They say we don't have experience and we've got experience and stuff like that. All we can worry about is the Washington Wizards."
Backcourt mate Bradley Beal dismissed the lack of national respect quickly: "Nobody knows what we have in our locker room, what's going on in our locker room or what we're capable of bringing to the table. So we're going to speak with the way we play."
Marcin Gortat, the veteran of the trio who has been to the postseason and the NBA Finals as a backup center with the Orlando Magic, isn't peeved by it at all.
"I can only assume they're are picking Chicago. That's normal. That's nothing new to me. Whey would they pick us?" he said. "Chicago is an experienced team. They have a lot of good players. They play in the playoffs every year. The pressure is on them. I don't understand why we should be mad. This is a good team. We just got to beat them."
The tone at practice, something Gortat has singled out for their dips in play at times, was at the highest level Thursday. They'll practice again Friday and leave for Chicago in the afternoon.
"I would say one of the best this season," Gortat said. "Everybody was engaged. We played hard. We executed well. We listened. We're in a good position."
Wall felt it, too. The Wizards ended the regular season with a four-game win streak as Wall led the way by playing better defense. When that happens, it tends to get contagious among his teammates.
"It was way more focused. More intense," Wall said of practice. "I'm just trying to compete on every play. Sometimes you take a play off and stuff like that (in the regular season). In this type of environment, in the playoffs, it's no time to take plays off. You have to fight your way through fatigue. I can be a great two-way player, just get in better shape and be more consistent with it. I'm doing a better job of that. That's something I've challenged myself to and the coaching staff. Being out there with Trevor Ariza and the way he plays defense, you learn things from the things he does. That's something I want to do also."