Why the Wizards have a shot in Boston

Chris Mannix
The Vertical
Coach Scott Brooks won 49 games with the Wizards this season. (AP)

BOSTON – The shot went in, and as the thousands roared around him, Scott Brooks didn’t so much as take his hands out of his pockets. Still 3.5 seconds left, Brooks said to himself. Still have to get a stop. The Wizards did, preserving a 92-91 win, forcing a Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals on Monday.

Later, the Wizards coach would smile, allowing the magnitude of the moment to wash over him. For great players, the playoffs are an opportunity. For great coaches, too. As a player, Brooks was an overachiever, a scrappy, 5-foot-11 guard who squeezed 10 NBA seasons out of his talent. As a coach, he is far closer to the elite. He’s been an NBA Coach of the Year, taken a team to the Finals and is now one win away from leading Washington to territory they last visited in the late ’70s: the conference finals.

It’s been a little over a year since the Wizards hired Brooks. They did it for several reasons; they have been rewarded for each. They did it for John Wall. Brooks has a knack for connecting with star players. He did it in Oklahoma City with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. He has done the same with Wall. That relationship – coupled with Wall’s healthiest season in several years – has catapulted Wall into the NBA’s point guard elite.

They did it for the young talent. The “he just rolls the ball out” narrative on Brooks was always a lazy one. Kevin Durant was a can’t-miss prospect. But Russell Westbrook was a combo guard coming out of UCLA. Brooks developed him into a point guard – and an MVP candidate. Serge Ibaka was a raw talent. Brooks molded him into an elite power forward. Reggie Jackson was a late first-round pick. Four years later, he was a max-contract player.

Player development is Brooks’ calling card. He identifies workable weaknesses, zeroes in on them and – poof – produces better players. Otto Porter’s 3-point shooting percentage jumped nearly seven points this season, and the Wizards have gone from a team with a soft spot at small forward to facing the prospect of maxing out one. Kelly Oubre’s minutes doubled from his rookie season, and he has been a key rotation player in these playoffs.

Otto Porter has blossomed under coach Scott Brooks. (AP)

The Wizards hired Brooks for this, for Game 7, for the steady hand of a coach who has been here before. It seems like yesterday that Brooks, less than two years removed from succeeding P.J. Carlesimo, led the baby-faced Thunder into the postseason against the top-seeded Lakers. Brooks remembers that series in 2010 vividly. Fondly, too.

“It was the Lakers, it was Kobe in his prime, and I remember thinking, ‘How are we going to keep this close?’” Brooks told The Vertical. “Then I remember after the first game thinking, ‘Wow, we can play against this team. I don’t know if we can beat them, but we can play against this team.’ That first series, it was really fun.”

That first series – a 4-2 first-round series loss to the Lakers – brought a unique pleasure. “Playoffs are still fun, but it’s a different fun,” Brooks said. It was the beginning of an extended stretch of success. The Wizards, recognizing Brooks’ contribution to that success, bet $35 million he could recreate it in Washington.

Brooks remembers the highs and lows of his first playoff series. “Back then, every loss was the end of the world and every win was like we just won a championship,” Brooks said. “Remember, we were down 0-2, then the third game we win, and it felt like we won the title. I remember walking off the floor thinking, ‘Wait, now we have to beat this team three more times.’”

Experience has settled him. He no longer lives in the moment. After Washington’s Game 2 loss, Brooks’ message to the team was simple: It’s not the end of the world. Let’s go take care of home court.

“Past experiences help,” Brooks said. “It’s not everything, but it helps. When you have been through it, you understand that we can get back in the series, it just takes one win. When you haven’t been through that, you can say it, but I have felt it, I have been through it. I have experienced it, so there is more substance behind it.”

On Monday, the Wizards will face a situation that for most is uncharted territory: Game 7. Beyond Marcin Gortat and his run to the NBA Finals with Orlando in 2009, Washington’s postseason experience is limited. Brooks has been in this situation before – twice. His Thunder beat Memphis in Game 7 of the West semifinals in 2011 and took a deciding game from the Grizzlies in the first round in 2014. The crowd in Boston will be raucous; the Wizards will need Brooks’ calming influence on the sideline.

“You just have to put yourself in position to win a game,” Brooks said. “When we were down 0-2 here, I think a lot of people thought the Celtics were just going to roll through us. We didn’t think that. These guys are confident guys. They believe they can win.”

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