The Wizards held an 83-82 lead over Boston midway through the 4th quarter, but didn’t have enough answers to close out the game. The C’s cruised to their second road victory of the year, their second in Washington D.C., despite being without Rajon Rondo (who missed the game with a wrist injury) and Ray Allen (who left in the second quarter with a jammed ankle). That’s because Paul Pierce commanded much of the attention as the key piece in the Celtics’ offense, scoring 14 of his season-high 34 points in the final period.
The Wizards didn’t have an offensive crutch in the clutch, and it cost them. But Flip Saunders, in his post game presser, argued that a tough defense is just as important as a single reliable scoring threat in the closing minutes of a basketball game:
“You have to close out with your defense, that’s how you close out games, Close out with your defense and try to get some pushes up the floor and get some open floor stuff if you can. What you have to do is stay aggressive and flatten out the defense. The ball has to get below the free throw line extended. You can’t play late in games without a thrust to the basket, the ball getting down low. When the call is just a play above the top of the key, it puts too much pressure on you.”
Saunders also added that the Wizards need to get rid of the ball, make quicker decisions and let others make the play — three things the coach has stressed all season long. But you can’t rely on your defense to create offense in every game, in every clutch situation, especially against a team like Boston.
“They just did a great job of scoring,” said John Wall after the game. “When they were scoring, it was tough to get out and push against them. Their bigs do a good job of getting back and they don’t go for too many offensive rebounds so it was hard to run on them.”
When the Wizards are forced to play in the half court — and run Flip Saunders’ system — they score fewer points. John Wall had something to say about this, too:
“I think we’re a more up-and-down team. Halfcourt we’re okay, we’re not a great halfcourt team. We go 1-on-1 too much.”
The Wizards can score as long as they can run. When the game slows down by nature or strategic design, they get caught. Without a roster that can definitively to turn defensive possessions into transition scoring opportunities, or even a lockdown defender that isn’t to be messed with, the Wizards will need to draw up an offensive solution. Saunders wants quicker decisions, but where will those lead to without a go-to scorer? Who do you trust? These are questions to which the Wizards simply don’t have answers.
To find out just how badly the team is getting throttled in the clutch — defined as the 4th quarter over overtime, with less than five minutes left and neither team ahead by more than five points — I turned to 82games.com (statistics accurate as of January 18, 2012).
John Wall has played in every clutch situation this season, but has a net plus-minus of minus-23. While he’s scoring 21.2 points in the clutch (per 48 minutes), half of which come from free throws given he’s shooting just 25-percent from the floor. Worse, Wall has has no assists (to two turnovers), no rebounds, and just one block.
Nick Young, who has been a part of 94-percent of the Wizards’ clutch minutes, is shooting 33-percent from the field and scoring 11.3 points (per 48 minutes). He doesn’t get to the line, doesn’t grab rebounds and doesn’t help others score.
Chris Singleton has seen 44-percent of Washington’s clutch minutes this season, but hasn’t produced much with the opportunity — not that he’s expected to: no points, no assists, no blocks, but one turnover.
JaVale McGee has yet to score in the clutch, despite playing almost 50-percent of the minutes. McGee has missed both of his clutch free throw attempts (where he’s shooting 40.9-percent on the season), but has registered both a rebound and a blocked shot. So there’s that.
Andray Blatche, meanwhile, is scoring 11. 1 points (per 48 clutch minutes) on 50-percent shooting, while also grabbing a third of available defensive rebounds in the clutch. By the numbers, he’s the Wizards most reliable offense creator in the clutch. Will anyone hear this over the boos? Would it even matter? Probably not.
The Wizards have lost three of their past four games, the lone win coming against an Oklahoma City Thunder team that “came out careless“ in every sense of the word. In that span, they’ve been outscored 52 to 47 in the clutch. That doesn’t sound dooming, and it isn’t, but every possession matters in clutch situations, the outcome of every play carries greater weight. The Wizards have lost in the clutch in every game but one, in which they matched Oklahoma City’s 15-point output. And remember, the Wizards have been on a home stand, the past four games were played in D.C.
This isn’t a complete picture of the Wizards struggles in key moments, but it does give some indication of how poorly they perform at the end of games. Defense can slow the opposition, but at some point, you have to find a way to put the ball in the hoop. Until they draft, develop or trade for a talent that can take control of a game like Paul Pierce, the Wizards, as a last-placed collection of individuals, will have to find a solution together.
“Paul (Pierce) carried us,” said Ray Allen after Sunday night’s game. “He played great for us. Everybody rallied behind him and everybody was just in great position. This is probably one of our best offensive games. We had good ball movement and did the things we needed to do to score.”