Key Legislature: Wizards 109 vs Hornets 101 — A Thin Line | Wizards Blog Truth About

Key Legislature: Wizards 109 vs Hornets 101 — A Thin Line

Updated: December 20, 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 vs Hornets, Regular Season Game 25, Dec. 19, 2015, by Lucas Hubbard (@LucasHubbard1).

Before Saturday’s game, Charlotte Hornets coach Steve Clifford talked at length about the bigger story in his city this fall: the Carolina Panthers. He is, unsurprisingly, impressed by Cam Newton and Co.

“If you can say there’s anything other than a very good win in the NFL, you’re not watching what I’m watching,” Clifford said. “What they’ve done […] is remarkable.”

This attitude—the appreciation for every single win—perhaps is diminished over the 82-game NBA schedule, but it seems apt for the Eastern Conference. Eleven teams are currently separated by 4.5 games, all with average point differentials within five points of dead zero. With these teams competing for just seven playoff spots behind the Cavaliers, it almost seems like an extreme game of Super Smash Bros., with each team trying to find the unfairly potent hammer on a given night. Forced metaphor aside, games amongst members of the nougaty center of the Eastern Conference are truly toss-ups, and the Hornets-Wizards showdown Saturday was no exception.

At the macro level, Washington won the game with its defense. The term Coach Randy Wittman used postgame was “activity,” and while a bit of an oversimplification, the squad’s success did stem from effort. There were tactical adjustments, sure—Jared Dudley explained nicely afterward how Washington switched ball screens rather than hedging them—but the Hornets were flustered throughout. Coming into the game, Charlotte averaged 12.6 turnovers per game, fewest in the league. Washington forced them into 18 team turnovers on Saturday, and the energy level was sufficient enough to convert these on the other end; the Wizards tallied 30 points from turnovers, including 18 on the break. While Wittman’s bunch wasn’t free from similar mistakes (14 TOs themselves), Charlotte’s conversion rate was substantially lower—14 points off turnovers, eight fast-break points—a testament to the Wizards’ effort and attentiveness in defensive transition. John Wall’s chasedown block of Jeremy Lin with seconds remaining exemplified this rather emphatically:

The “activity” was made all the more impressive given Washington’s short-handedness. Due to Otto Porter, Jr.’s recent thigh injury, the Wizards were down to 10 healthy players, and Wittman didn’t make things easier on his core. By keeping DeJuan Blair and Ryan Hollins firmly tethered to the bench, Washington went only eight-deep versus Charlotte’s 10-man rotation. The shorter rotation would spell a few things: first, an even heavier reliance on John Wall (42 minutes on Saturday), and second, fatigue that allowed a deep Hornets team (although without Al Jefferson and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist) to stick around. In both the second and fourth quarters, the times when backup units typically get the most run, Charlotte made moves, clawing to a brief four-point lead in the second and, more concerningly, cutting Washington’s 15-point lead down to just one with 2:24 remaining in the game. Given the home team’s fatigue, the capabilities of Charlotte, and Wizards’ recent proclivity to give up big leads, the rally wasn’t surprising. With what transpired last month in Charlotte, when the Hornets stormed back with a 25-0 fourth quarter run to run away with the victory, it was understandable for the Verizon Center crowd to squirm a little bit.

As a result, the game swung—or rather, was put to rest—on the next three possessions. For Washington, marathon men Wall and Marcin Gortat (41 minutes himself) took over. On the initial possession, Gortat set a freeing high screen for Wall to get to his sweet spot on the right elbow, his first field goal of the fourth quarter. Next trip down, Wall weaved his way over two Dudley screens and found Gortat slipping open along the baseline. A quick drop-off and flip into the basket, and the Wizards were up five, and the lead only grew from there.

In the interim, though, was Charlotte’s chance to tie the game. The genesis of the play was similar to Washington’s—Kemba Walker, pounding away at the top of the key, receiving a high screen to go to his right. While Walker has improved his shooting from distance this year, he’s still hitting just 36 percent of his attempts, and currently finds himself mired in a micro-slump, shooting 1-for-13 over his last three games (including Saturday night). His 25-foot attempt to tie the game with 1:52 left was reasonable, if maybe suboptimal from Charlotte’s viewpoint. It missed.

The most promising statistic from Saturday is Charlotte’s outside shooting: they shot 10-for-33 for a mere 30 percent from beyond the arc, well below the standard 40-plus percent that the Wizards yield. Chalk some of it up to shots like Kemba’s that were reasonable but unsuccessful; chalk some of it up to the switching defense and some to general “activity.” The early polls from the game suggested it’d be standard Wizards oppositional fare, as the Hornets started 6-for-11 from deep. However, the final defensive bounty certainly subverted expectations—here’s to hoping that this engagement and energy level is the new normal.

Ultimately, efforts like Saturday’s will be required for the Wizards to claw back into the playoff picture. More than ever, gimmes don’t exist in the Eastern Conference, and with the Wizards offense constructed the way it currently is‚that is, simplistically—the opportunity for blowouts is similarly absent. No, Washington has to grind out victories through its defense, through John Wall’s exceptionality, through spot contributions from role players. Saturday, everything aligned: the defense clicked and flustered a well-oiled machine. Wall had 27 points and 12 assists; and Dudley, Garrett Temple, and Kelly Oubre, Jr. (in his first career start) combined to go 7-for-10 from deep. Even Gortat shook off a rough start to throw in 18 points.

Each of those components carries a, um, different likelihood of being replicable—some of these elements are stand-bys, while others have been long dormant or are completely new. Regardless, Saturday’s was a refreshing game. The emphasis postgame was the week ahead; both Dudley and Wall spoke to the importance of stringing together wins in this current stretch of schedule. It’s clear that the Wizards have a thin margin of error this year, but we now know that such a feat is not impossible. That’s a start.

Lucas Hubbard on EmailLucas Hubbard on LinkedinLucas Hubbard on TwitterLucas Hubbard on Wordpress
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.