The Wizards' Paul Pierce is at it again. Before the first-round series, the veteran small forward said the Raptors lacked that certain "it" that you fear from an opponent in an NBA playoff series. Pierce was right. Washington swept Toronto in four games in the first round.
After the Wizards won at Atlanta in the opener of the Eastern Conference semifinals on Sunday, Pierce said the Hawks had something, and he wasn't talking about the elusive "it. He was talking about pressure.
"You're the hunted," Pierce said of the Hawks. "You're a 60-win team, the No. 1 team in the East. That's what it is. The pressure is all on you now."
Once again, Pierce is dead-on. The Hawks were the surprise darlings of the NBA this season, winning 60 games to earn the top seed in the East. But the playoffs are a different story, as the Wizards proved in Game 1. Atlanta scored 63 points in the first half and seemed poised to win going away. But they shot 25 percent in the second half -- 5 of 28 in the fourth quarter -- and lost, 104-98.
Sure, the Hawks were tired. But they haven't played like a top seed in the playoffs. They struggled to get past the Nets until the final game of that series. They're a little small and too reliant on perimeter shooting. Their shortcomings got exposed in the second half against Washington, a good defensive team with big, athletic guards.
John Wall and Bradley Beal are a tough, young backcourt tandem. Wall, who is 6-4, has been slow to mature in the NBA, but is coming into his own as an all-around player. He had 18 points, 13 assists, 7 rebounds and 3 blocks in the opener. Beal is only 21 and has struggled with injuries this season. But he's figuring things out and had 28 points against the Hawks. Both Wall and Beal suffered injuries in Game 1, but came back later.
The Wizards are getting a strong effort from another 21-year-old, Otto Porter Jr., the third overall pick in the 2013 draft. Porter struggled mightily as a rookie, but has slowly come along this season and has been a major contributor since the start of April. The 6-8 forward had 10 points and 11 rebounds in 34 minutes Sunday and played stout defense. He's averaging 9.6 points and 8.0 rebounds in the playoffs.
Washington looks like the team that went 28-13 in the first half, not the one that staggered to an 18-23 finish. It's a good thing Pierce is talking, because virtually nobody else is talking about this team. They're building on the experience they gained in two series last season, and they're a very dangerous team right now, one that has a good chance to give the franchise its first trip to the conference finals since 1979.
The Wizards have now won the opener of a playoff series on the road four times in a row -- an NBA record.
"We have a different approach,” Beal said after Saturday's win. “Last year, we were just happy to be in the playoffs, and we were happy we moved on. We didn't really have any high goals after the first round.
“This year we expect more out of ourselves. We expect to get past the second round.”