Key Legislature: Wizards 97 vs Cavaliers 84 — The Inside Stuff From Washington's Big Win | Wizards Blog Truth About

Key Legislature: Wizards 97 vs Cavaliers 84 — The Inside Stuff From Washington’s Big Win

Updated: December 2, 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 Cavaliers, Regular Season Game 15, Dec. 1, 2015, by John Converse Townsend (@JohnCTownsend). Photo: @washwizards.


Nobody saw that coming, but the Wizards did it. They beat the Cavs on their own floor. And, for stretches—completely discounting the 1-for-9 shooting effort over the last seven minutes, when the Wizards played Kill The Clock, not basketball—they looked like the Golden State Warriors.

Washington led by as many as 22 points, more than once. Cleveland hadn’t trailed by more than 18 this season till Tuesday night.

So, how did the Wizards do it?

Most of the coverage will, presumably (since I’m not reading it, but writing it), talk about Jared Dudley making his second start of the season at “power” forward. It will celebrate the very small lineup that Wittman used in the second quarter: John Wall, Bradley Beal, Garrett Temple, Otto Porter, and the 6-foot-7 Dudley at center. And it will pump up the Polish Hammer, given name Marcin Gortat, for his fifth double-double of the year, which came with great intensity on the defensive side. He totalled four blocks, a season-high.

But I don’t want to talk about any of that. Well, only little of that. Because I feel that it’s important to set a critical part of the record straight. Cleveland Cavaliers analyst Austin Carr (1), broadcasted his thoughts on the action to a national audience on NBATV (with play-by-play from Fred McLeod). Carr could not stop talking about pace. Pace this, pace that, pace pace pace. The Wizards are playing at a pace the Cavs can’t seem to keep up with, he’d say. They’re breathing very hard, he’d observe. “It was the pace of the game that hurt the Cavs in the first half,” Carr concluded at halftime.


The Wizards, who spent training camp fixing the offense to allow for more 3s, came into the game ranked 4th in Pace (101.46 possessions per 48 minutes), behind only the Suns, Kings and Warriors. And it’s not just because John Wall, the fastest damn player with the ball, is going 1-on-5 every possession. (That does help some, though: Wall and his teammates score 18 fast break points per game, often coming after opponent makes, second only to Golden State). The ball just doesn’t “stick” this year: The Wizards, as a team, average the second-fewest seconds per touch (2.39). They also take the third-fewest dribbles per touch (1.79), on average. As for those 3-pointers, 13 teams attempt more per game, but the Wizards are averaging eight more treys than they were last year, which is great! Truly great. One small step for Randy Wittman, one giant leap for Wizard kind.

Unfortunately, all that zip and pizzazz hasn’t amounted to much. The pacey Wizards average about 99 points per game, outscored on a game-by-game basis by 17 other teams, including the Warriors, who put up about 115 on any given night.

Obviously, it’s not the number of possessions or touches that count. It’s what you do with the touches on each possession, precious even when running and gunning. The Wizards have been able to produce more deep looks (and could afford to take even more), but they haven’t truly changed the way teams defend them—Kris Humphries flaring out for an above-the-break 3, for example, is something that most coaches will concede. And far too often, the Wizards have run what looks like a three-man weave (2) around the perimeter, allowing defenses to switch, or not, and rest covering less distance inside the arc. Ignored has been Gortat, a very skilled big, who’d been the roll man about twice per game through the first 14 contest and totaled fewer rolls on the season than Jon Leuer, Darrell Arthur and Zaza Pachulia.

Let that sink in.

Against the Cavaliers that changed. Gortat was involved early and often. He led all players in first-quarter field goal attempts (7), makes (5), and points (10). He played great, even if he scored just five points the rest of the way: Gortat only had two field attempts outside of nine feet and protected the rim like a champ. But, as I mentioned earlier, I’m not here to talk about Gortat. I’m here to discuss how, exactly, the Wizards built a 22-point lead against the Cavs, then-undefeated at home. Cleveland shooting 33.7 percent from the field and 30 percent from 3 helps—there is no denying that. It’s a make or miss league, as Wittman will tell you at every (and any) opportunity.

The answer to how Cleveland browned out begins with John Wall, as you might expect. “Wall said he watched film and saw he was not getting proper lift on his jumper. Worked on it Monday, better tonight,” Todd Dybas of the Washington Times tweeted. Wall’s 14-for-24 night, which included 15 tries from midrange or beyond (3-5 on 3s), was indeed impressive. But the answer doesn’t end with Wall’s season-high 35 points, even if hot outside shooting can be a game changer.

The reason everything clicked, on Tuesday night, was because Wall was incisive, decisive and made a concerted effort to attack the rim. If there was a smaller defender on him, say, Matthew Dellavedova, he’d punish with a post-up, scoring with a baseline spin move or ripping a fastball past a closing defense to the corner for 3. If there was a driving angle, he’d take it, scoring with his left or right or both, using a behind-the-back gather to set up a sweet finish. The rest of the Washington Hardwood Orchestra followed his cue, most notably Jared Dudley, who, for example, would receive the ball at the elbow, dribble away from the hoop, drawing the defense toward the 3-point line, before bouncing the ball to screen-slipping Gortat for a dunk. Bradley Beal, too, looked good enough off the dribble:

The Wizards scored 44 points in the paint against Cleveland (better than their 38-point average). But paint points are, by the numbers, overrated. What matters is consistent inside pressure. The Wizards brought that, which forced the Cavs to choose whether to shut down two-man games with Gortat, deny the more-than-capable shooters around the perimeter, or focus on closing down the intelligent and underrated (and two-way stretch 4) Dudley. No team can defend it all. The post and paint areas became pivots for open shots, at the rim and ‘round the perimeter, where they count most. Cleveland was asked to cover every inch of the floor and, come the fourth quarter, David Blatt’s bunch was exhausted—physically and mentally.

That breakthrough in live-action strategy is how the Wizards blew out the Cavaliers. This is how and why a modern offense works. Look under the hood around the league.

The Warriors (who love lineups where Draymond Green at 6-foot-7 is the tallest on the floor) lead the league in post touches per game (23.4) and field goal attempts in the post (12.6). They also own the paint. They also have the most paint touches per game (18.1) and lead the NBA in nightly paint field goal attempts (10.9). The Wizards meanwhile rank 23rd in post touches per game (15.4) and 25th in post field goal attempts per game (8.1), despite shooting about 60 percent there.(3) In the paint, the Wiz rank 21st in both touches (12.6) and field goal attempts (7.1).

Even with all the cameras fixed on Steph Curry, likely this year’s MVP, raining hellfire upon anyone not wearing blue and gold, the key is the inside stuff. Painting and posting doesn’t require you to shoot from inside, of course—the Warriors, Hornets, Suns, Pacers, and Celtics often don’t. And either way, the Wizards need not follow the Warriors, or other space-and-pace teams, in every metric. “Teams score as they’re able,” as Rob Mahoney once put it. However, if the Wizards want to turn their season around, they need to attack the paint like they did in Cleveland every day.

The question now, after this win, is: Can they keep it up?


  1. Carr played 39 games for the Washington Wizards, when they were known as the Bullets, at the tail end of his career; he was born in D.C. and played high school hoops in the city.
  2. Sometimes this inefficient perimeter work is a product of Nene or Humphries dribble hand-offs.
  3. Like the inverse problem from last year, where they excelled at 3-point shooting but not on taking them.
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John Converse Townsend
Reporter / Writer / Co-Editor at TAI
John has been part of the editorial team at TAI since 2010. He likes: pocket passes, chase-down blocks, 3-pointers. He dislikes: typos, turnovers, midrange jump shots.