Key Legislature: Wizards 104 at Hornets 108 — A Stinging End in Buzz City | Wizards Blog Truth About It.net

Key Legislature: Wizards 104 at Hornets 108 — A Stinging End in Buzz City

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Updated: February 7, 2016

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. Sixers, Regular Season Game 49, Feb. 6, 2016, by Lucas Hubbard (@LucasHubbard1) from a couple hundred miles north of Dabtown, U.S.A.

One night in college, after some typical shenanigans, my friend and I played a healthy 3 a.m. game of NFL Blitz. Nothing too extraordinary, certainly, but this particular game ended up with a final score of 52-3. (In hindsight, one of us had likely been a tad over-served.) Afterward, once our laughter had been curbed, we jointly reached the conclusion that this scoreline—while not a total shutout—was in fact as embarrassing as possible for the loser. A score of 52-0 would convey an unfamiliarity with the sport, such as a Londoner trying to pick up the nuances of the zone read. Those three points, however, suggested spurts of competence from the losing side: the player was capable enough to get on the scoreboard, but putting together a complete effort was simply not possible. In short, we had reached the conclusion that having the building blocks of success and doing little with them was a far greater mishap than having no building blocks whatsoever.

I thought about that Blitz game after watching the Wizards’ devastating loss to Charlotte on Saturday night. On paper, a four-point loss on the road to the team directly ahead of you in the Eastern Conference standings is not catastrophic. Painful and disappointing, maybe, but understandable.

The frustration with Washington, though, is that their standard performance is a Frankensteinian amalgam, one part fantastic and one part garbage. The team is clearly talented (see the majority of the first half) and equally lackadaisical and listless (see the rest of the game). So a four-point road loss to a roughly equivalent team is not just a loss: it’s a sign of both what could be if the team played fluidly with a defined game plan for 48 minutes, as well as a spotlight on why this team, as it stands now, will never accomplish anything more than tantalizing its fanbase. The competence is sometimes there; the sustained competence simply isn’t.

However, you can’t simply chalk up the Wizards’ struggles to the oft-invoked straw men of effort and focus. Those traits weren’t abundant during Charlotte’s 40-13 Amtrak trip spanning the second and third quarters that completely erased Washington’s 19-point lead, and certainly not when Marcin Gortat committed a clear path foul on noted quickster Cody Zeller. But a run of that magnitude doesn’t occur merely due to player apathy on the Washington side—blame can be shared, and the coaching staff didn’t do the players any favors on Saturday.

Two shining examples, one from each end of the floor:

  • The Wizards scored 17 points in the third quarter—nine of which came in the final three minutes. In those dry first eight minutes, Washington was 3-for-17 from the field, including a 1-for-14 stretch as Charlotte surged into the lead. The offense, invigorated in the first half by some fast break points and the hot hands of Jared Dudley and Otto Porter, Jr., devolved into its M.O. of bad spacing and screens to nowhere. Ultimately, it’s hard to expect Washington’s offense to maintain consistently high levels of efficiency when the core concept is “John Wall doing John Wall things.” An inventive offense, like Steve Kerr’s or Rick Carlisle’s or Gregg Popovich’s, can earn a team “system” baskets—baskets stemming strictly from the action of a smartly designed play. If someone has seen this phenomenon for the Washington Wizards, please let me know.

(One small suggestion to unclog the offense: perhaps play Bradley Beal before the entirety of a 19-point lead has evaporated.)

  • As the Hornets clawed to their eight-point lead, they repeatedly victimized the Wizards via one Nic Batum, who had a ho-hum 26/11/9 night. Batum’s night was made substantially easier when Washington downgraded to a small lineup midway through the third: from there Batum found himself guarded by the likes of Gary Neal and Ramon Sessions. Batum scored or assisted on Charlotte’s last 17 points of the third quarter, 15 of which came after the Wizards went small.

(One small suggestion to stem a 6-foot-8 triple threat: perhaps keep playing Otto. Or, dare I say, play Kelly Oubre, Jr.?)

Maybe the most inexplicable and surprisingly competent characteristic of the Wizards is how they battle, especially when they’ve done whatever they can to sabotage themselves up until that point. From down eight in the fourth quarter, John Wall and Beal found some rhythm and manufactured a one-point lead in crunch time. Miraculously, in Beal’s presence the offense ran well once again—if not brimming with fluid, at least damp—and the two backcourt stars consistently earned good looks in the midrange and outside.

(Again, when this offense clicks, it only serves to highlight the festering and inexcusable suckitude on other possessions. Maybe Beal’s eventual minutes increase will provide a more lasting alleviation; I’m not holding my breath.)

After a few altogether-too-easy Hornets layups, Washington—now down one with 45 seconds left—needed a stop. With Batum, the Randy Wittman nightmare fuel himself, attempting to drive baseline against Gortat after a switch, Wall sagged off Jeremy Lin in the short corner. One kickout pass later, it was a four-point game, which held up as the final margin. Here’s a specific situation where the blame can’t be accurately attributed: maybe Wall was acting alone in dropping to stop the drive, which would have been a bad split-second decision. Maybe the team was instructed to help on Batum and give up the outside shot, which, given that the Wizards were only down one, represents premeditated inanity. Whether a lack of focus or a lack of strategy, the action was ineffective, the outcome crippling.

The thought behind TAI’s Key Legislature is to point out the crucial play or moment that explains the game. To be clear, the Wizards lost this game when they allowed Charlotte to hang around and surge ahead, and then when they compounded their lack of killer instinct with bad decision making in crunch time. But in a way, blaming this loss on game-specific elements seems reductive—the flaws that were on display Saturday are old friends, endemic to the Washington 2015-16 season, with roots stretching into previous years. Yes, the Wizards lost this game when they zoned out for a quarter of the game; they also lost this game when Oubre (for some reason earlier this year) fell out of favor with Wittman; they lost this game in training camp when they didn’t retain focus on the defensive concepts that had kept them treading water in previous seasons; they lost it in the offseason when they forfeited the crunch-time mettle of Paul Pierce, when they didn’t find the pieces for the offensive system they wanted, and when they didn’t unearth an offensive system worth a damn.

In hindsight, Saturday was a four-point loss that could have been seen a mile away. Sure, the score was close, but let’s not kid ourselves: with the talent on this team, that game was as embarrassing as it gets.

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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.