Key Legislature: Wizards 105 at Pelicans 107 — Wittman’s Wizards Lose Another Coin Flip | Wizards Blog Truth About It.net

Key Legislature: Wizards 105 at Pelicans 107 — Wittman’s Wizards Lose Another Coin Flip

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Updated: December 12, 2015

TAI’s Key Legislature… The game’s defining moment, its critical event, the wildest basketball thing you ever saw, or just stuff that happened. Wizards at Pelicans, Regular Season Game 21, Dec. 11, 2015, by Lucas Hubbard (@LucasHubbard1).

Here’s a hot take: the basic box score gets taken for granted. Maybe it’s the increasing advanced metrication of sports, the sheer quantity of data available, or the unending search for the perfect statistic—e.g. ESPN’s noble Real Plus-Minus endeavor—but regardless, the simple lens of counting stats seems outdated and insufficient.

So it’s funny to me when a game like Friday night’s comes along, and the box score tells the story pretty damn well. In New Orleans, the Wizards and Pelicans played a coin flip of a game. From the shot attempts (40-80 for Washington, 39-79 for New Orleans) to the 3s attempted (27 each) to the fouls (17 for Washington, 18 for New Orleans, and 13 made FTs apiece), it was basically a stalemate, one that in some capacity was decided by a literal jump ball in the waning seconds.

Of course, the game is over, and the Pelicans won by two points. Which begs, at the very least, two questions:

Why did the Wizards lose on Friday?

The straightforward question deserves a straightforward answer. The proverb is that the NBA, on the whole, is a “make-or-miss league.” So, take the two-point margin of victory for New Orleans, slim to begin with, and then consider:

Exhibit A: New Orleans

  • Jrue Holiday hit a half-court shot to end the first quarter.
  • Anthony Davis drained a end-of-shot clock 3-pointer with under three minutes to play in the fourth, a shot that touched every part of the rim and seemed to go down due to a clerical error.

Exhibit B – Washington:

  • Ramon Sessions missed a wide-open, go-ahead corner 3 with under a minute to play.
  • Gary Neal missed a wide-open, midrange jumper to tie at the buzzer (a rushed pull-up jumper, but still).

Change the outcome on any of those four shots, and the Wizards probably win. Better yet, review the 3s that each team took—they both shot 27 times, but the Pelicans made four more. The odds that all of these plays fell on the ledger as they did, well, it’s not the craziest thing that’s happened on a Friday night in New Orleans, but it’s unfortunate. Sometimes, you have to throw up your hands and say, “Eh. So it goes.”

Why did the Wizards have a chance to lose on Friday?

This question is the demanding one, and, honestly, any Wizards fan could point to X,Y, and Z as the root causes of the team’s failures and still have enough issues to run it back to A,B, and C. None of what happened Friday night is especially novel, and that is indeed the problem—operationally, nothing seems to be changing. Sure, Bradley Beal being unavailable didn’t help (although Garrett Temple’s 2-6 shooting from outside was a suitable imitation), but adversity in the NBA is the reality, not the exception.

No, Washington is still a mess at both ends: offensively, the team subsisted on a steady diet of high screens for John Wall* and isos on defensive mismatches. At the seven-minute mark in the second quarter, the Wizards actually cooked up a designed “floppy” set that resulted in a wide-open 3 for Gary Neal, their first documented inventive play call of the game (it missed, for the record). Apparently, though, its flavors were too bold to warrant re-heating late in the fourth, as—on the possession prior to Neal’s last-second miss—Wall received the standard TV dinner high screen from Gortat and pulled up from 18 feet to no avail.

*Wall, last-second miss aside, was fantastic as always, and made two holy sh!t assists—the first a spiraling 360° bailout to Temple for a corner 3, the second a textbook bounce pass to Otto Porter on the break for a dunk.

Mostly, though, Washington boasted a pretty chill approach to offense. Part of that had to do with New Orleans’ 28th-ranked defense—the Wizards could string together a few perimeter passes and, with little resistance, find themselves a semi-decent look. They could push the ball in transition and semi-transition, getting the same quality shots sans the passing. Perhaps being more judicious with shot selection would have helped (only 20% of Washington’s shot attempts were at the rim, and nearly 30% were above-the-break 3s), but based on the results, the offense was pretty successful! 50 percent shooting from the field, 44 percent from 3, and only 10 turnovers for the game: that’s a pretty good outing.

What’s concerning, though, is that any offensive success is fleeting, dependent on outside strokes, and when that goes awry—see: the abomination of the third quarter, the end-of-game possessions—there needs to be an institutionalized process to get high percentage shots. That is, a process beyond setting a screen for John Wall and spreading the floor. The screen-and-roll is a fine starter kit, but too often there isn’t a backup plan, and that’ll be a problem when Washington faces teams that are, well, actually good.

Let’s be clear: the defense lost Washington the game. At this point, the ridiculous streak of shooting performances vs. the Wizards is on-par with the insanity of Golden State’s undefeated record. For all of Wesley Matthews’ and CJ Miles’ cheekiness, I think Tyreke Evans hitting 5-of-6 3s (a career-high in made 3s) is the greatest blemish on Washington’s defense. With this game in the books, the Wizards now allow opponents to shoot the third-highest percentage from the field, the highest percentage from beyond the arc, and, when you factor in the quality of the opponents they’ve played so far, they allow the highest adjusted FG% in the league. These hot-shooting nights against Washington, as unbelievable as they are in the moment, may simply be the new normal.

Fundamentally, there’s little that watching this defensive performance illuminated in terms of unknown, specific flaws—you don’t need a magnifying glass to understand a 15-car pileup. If teams pass the ball, they’ll get open looks due to shoddy rotations, and New Orleans was able to manufacture shots for Anthony Davis in the midrange and beyond. If teams want to iso with a Tyreke Evans-type, they’ll do well, as Washington lacks a de facto lockdown defender. If teams want to run simple action for their shooters—like a high screen at the top of the key—Washington will oblige and keep Gortat pinned to the paint, and Jrue Holiday and Eric Gordon will shoot wide-open 23-footers. At this point, the problem with the defense is anything and everything. While the 3-point shooting “anomalies” get the most focus, these anomalies are a product of their atrocious defensive environment, an environment where no lead is safe because the other team can easily hit six 3-pointers in the fourth quarter (as the Pelicans did Friday).

These factors—the self-satisfied offense and the disinterested, disorganized defense—are what make the Wizards’ results so scattered. A successful night requires two things: a lot of makes by your shooters, and a decent proportion of misses from the opposition. That’s the nature of the league, sure, but other, more successful teams try to impose their will here. They run sets to generate higher-quality looks at the basket. They figure out schemes to actively impede the other team’s shots, and they manage to block more than one shot over the duration of the game. They do these things because these things make a difference, allowing a team control over the game even when the planets aren’t perfectly aligned.

And while it’s cynical to say this, it seems like for now the Wizards don’t want to tip the scales in their favor. They’re content to simply let the shots fall as they fall. It’s a make-or-miss league, and Friday they missed a few more than the Pelicans.

Washington is now 9-12 and just lost to the 14th place team in the West. Ultimately, the Wizards themselves are closer to 14th in the East than the playoffs.

So it goes.

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Lucas Hubbard
Lucas joined TAI in 2015 as a late convert to the Cult of Randy Wittman. He holds many strong, ill-informed opinions about the NBA, most of which center on the belief that Mo Speights is an All-Star. Lucas lives in DC, where he has chanted "Ot-to Por-ter" at 9 consecutive Wizards games.