WASHINGTON — John Wall was waving his towel as time expired. He joined his teammates at center court and did a little dance in the middle of a celebratory huddle. He gave Bradley Beal a bear hug from behind and also hugged and thanked coach Randy Wittman.
Wall will soon be making his playoff debut, and the Washington Wizards will be there for the first time since 2008, having clinched an Eastern Conference berth Wednesday night with a 118-92 win over the Boston Celtics.
“It’s everything I’ve been waiting for,” said Wall, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2010 draft, “as being a point guard, and trying to learn how to lead in this league, and become a better player. But also I think the fans deserve it. I mean, the tough times they’ve been through, booing us and us feeling bad when we’re not playing good or playing the right way.”
Wall had 13 points and 10 assists in one of the Wizards’ easiest wins in recent history. It was their biggest margin of victory this season, and their 62.5 shooting percentage was their best in a game since 2001.
The Wizards’ playoff position had been relatively secure for several weeks in the weakened East, but the formality of seeing the magic number reach zero was a milestone worth noting for a franchise whose win totals since their last postseason appearance have been 19, 26, 23, 20 and 29 – never finishing better than 24 games below .500. Washington sits in sixth place in the conference.
“We’re still learning the process of what it takes to be a really good team,” said Wittman, who will be in the playoffs for the first time as a head coach. “But I couldn’t be more happy for those guys.”
Marcin Gortat scored 22 points on 10-for-13 shooting, and Beal went 7 for 8 to finish with 19 points. All five Wizards starters scored in double figures, rendering superfluous the customary off-the-bench burst from Wittman’s “AARP group” of Al Harrington, Andre Miller and Drew Gooden.
Jared Sullinger had 25 points, and Rajon Rondo had 13 to lead the Celtics, who have lost six in a row and 11 of 12 – and also 11 straight on the road. They never led the Wizards, trailed 19-4 after barely more than five minutes and allowed Washington to shoot 61 percent in the first half. They shot 4 for 18 with six turnovers in the third quarter and 3 for 24 from 3-point range for the game.
“We laid an egg. It’s pretty obvious,” Boston coach Brad Stevens said. “We didn’t provide any fight tonight.”
The Wizards’ last playoff appearance ended a streak of four in a row with coach Eddie Jordan and franchise point guard Gilbert Arenas. More was expected, but Arenas brought guns into the locker room and became a felon, precipitating a stunning decline for himself and the franchise. Team president Ernie Grunfeld got rid of Jordan and went through two more coaches before settling on Wittman, whose career record is 141 games below .500.
Grunfeld misfired on draft picks and other signings, but the Wizards’ miserable records allowed him to land two cornerstones: Wall and 2012 No. 3 overall pick Beal. Gortat, Nene, Trevor Ariza and the AARP trio have added the right veteran mix this season to keep the team hovering around .500.
All of it happened not a moment too soon: Both Grunfeld and Wittman are in the last year of their contracts and were operating under a playoffs-or-else mandate from owner Ted Leonsis.
“We were in a desperate spot not too long ago,” said Wittman, who was promoted to head coach after Flip Saunders was fired in January 2012. “When I took over, I just tried to keep not only telling our guys, but Ted and Ernie, `Let’s do this the right way and let’s build this and teach, and one day we’re going to get here.”‘