Washington Turns One Corner With Takedown of Los Angeles
Don’t ask any of the Wizards players if they’re satisfied after beating the Los Angeles Clippers, 117-110, on Sunday afternoon. Even if it was Washington’s best effort, and win, in game No. 26 on the season, giving them a 12-14 record. The Wizards are 6-2 over their last eight contests.
“This game is going to count if we’re going to follow up tomorrow with a win,” said Marcin Gortat afterward, his team soonafter flying to Indiana for a Monday night matchup with Pacers. “Obviously if we’re going to go tomorrow and we’re going to lose the game, it ain’t going to look good.”
“We showed our hand, so there’s no excuses for us going forward,” said Bradley Beal. “We’ve shown that we can beat an elite team and that we can compete at a high level.”
“They said that last game,” said Markieff Morris when asked if this game could be a turning point. “Yea, you could say that. I mean, to be a good team you have to beat good teams. A team like that, the Clippers, that was a good team. We just gotta keep pushing forward.”
— Kyle Weidie (@Truth_About_It) December 19, 2016
A strong defensive showing from the Wizards to start was masked by the general sloppiness of both teams. Marcin Gortat moved his feet to draw a charge on the baseline against DeAndre Jordan within the game’s first couple of possessions. Markieff Morris attentively didn’t let Blake Griffin leak out on the break. The Wizards were more in tune when it came to helpside team defense, and it started with those two big men inside. Neither team’s offense was fully awake for the 3:30 pm afternoon start time, but the primary shot-makers still proved willing and able.
Bradley Beal got his engine slowly rolling with five first quarter attempts (two makes), one time running a give-and-go with Morris and then feathering the ball high off the glass over Jordan’s outstretched arm. Griffin scored nine points (seven shots) in the opening period, going 1-for-3 on jump shots outside of 15 feet (which the Wizards game-planned to give up).
Scott Brooks combined the necessity of having to put Trey Burke on Chris Paul late in the first quarter with his prayers (one would assume) and with playing John Wall the full opening 12 minutes. It didn’t end terribly. A Wall attack in the closing seconds got him to the free throw line; he missed the second chance but got his own rebound and hit a buzzer beater to put the Wizards up 28-27.
Beal grabbed the keys and stepped on the gas in the second quarter, where he scored 12 of his 41 points. A beautiful drive—Austin Rivers didn’t stand a chance—and side-step around Marreese Speights for a layup (33-33 lead) was just one of several prime examples of how far Beal’s game, and footwork, have come. A few minutes later he took one back-dribble and then jabbed a quick attack, i.e., faked the shit out of Rivers and Jordan, and flew down the lane for a dunk. Brooks, already missing Kelly Oubre (concussion) and Jason Smith (hamstring), meanwhile cobbled together what he could off the bench. Two early fouls from Gortat led to playing rookie Daniel Ochefu; and Morris, Andrew Nicholson, and Ochefu (who doubled his minutes on the season with nine total on Sunday) each picked up three first half fouls, muddling any semblance of a rotation. The coach somehow raised 2.2 minutes from a shallow grave (Brooks used the term “survive minutes”) with a four-guard lineup of Trey Burke, Marcus Thornton, Beal, and Tomas Satoransky (with Morris at the 5). They outscored the Clippers 7-6. Brooks’ bench actually held pace with Los Angeles’ in the first half, 16-19 in scoring, but the Clippers’ bench added 16 more points in the second half to just one point from the Wizards’ second unit.
Washington grabbed a 49-44 lead off a Morris steal and assist combo that netted a John Wall breakaway dunk. Then Beal bothered Paul into losing the ball out of bounds to give the Wizards a chance to gain separation. But as went the general first half sloppiness, Wall missed a jumper he made tougher than it should have been, and the Clippers visited Lob City in the other direction. Morris made a bone-headed pass, and the Paul hit a fadeaway jumper. But as soon as Los Angeles tied game at 49, Beal drove an icy 3-pointer into their hearts—Griffin gave him space at the top of the arc and dared him to shoot.
— Washington Wizards (@WashWizards) December 18, 2016
“Brad looked like a totally different person. A lot more aggressive,” said Paul after the game. “This is the Bradley Beal he should be all the time.”
The veteran Clippers countered with a 10-2 run out of halftime to take a 65-54 lead, causing a Scott Brooks timeout. The coach then drew up a Wall lob to Morris and that opened the lid on a flurry of Wizards points—they went on a 17-8 run with Beal scoring 11. Doc Rivers responded with his own timeout. Eventually what took time to dawn on the arena crowd became fully apparent: this was a fun game, and it being one of the better attended home affairs for the season only accented the vibe in Chinatown, D.C.
So go several players on the roster (starting with Wall), so go the Wizards—one could cliche. But Markieff Morris has that tantalizing combination of either being the team’s key, or their downfall. He picked up his fourth foul just over three minutes into the third with the Wizards down 10, but Brooks left him on the court with a short bench and eked out nearly two more minutes of Morris’ presence. He still scored 23 points, one off his season-high, with 12 coming in a fast and furious fourth quarter where Washington outscored L.A. 32-23 to take the game. Morris baptized Speights with jam, bullied his way closer to the rim on another play, hit a baby hook over Griffin, and caught Jordan sleeping with a lob dunk, assist from Wall. Morris definitely took offense that Doc Rivers threw the likes of his son, Austin, and Wesley Johnson to try to check him.
“Kief is Kief, he’s got this dog in him,” was Gortat’s way of extolling Morris afterward, “and you never know (when) he’s going to all of a sudden wake up.” Gortat twice drove home the point that Morris “took the challenge personally” on Sunday.
The final bite came with under two minutes left and the Wizards up 110-108. Rivers and Blake Griffin doubled Wall off a Morris screen, and that led to Morris calmly hitting an 18-foot jumper with space courtesy of Griffin. About 30 seconds later, Morris hit a 10-foot baseline jumper right over Rivers, giving Washington a six-point lead with 66 seconds left and the game would not get closer. Doc Rivers would acquire two technicals and an ejection during the subsequent timeout.
The Wizards have won three games in a row and six of eight, and that’s since playing both Oklahoma City and San Antonio tough on the road, but losing. In going 5-1 at home and 1-1 on the road during this recent stretch of “winnable” games, the Wizards are right where they had to be (which is also only two losses more than the third team in a bunched up East).
So what has changed?
“Well, effort. Effort has been better. We played defense, we played together, we made shots,” said Gortat, matter-of-factly.
“Just defensively. We’re competing. We’re making it tough on other guys,” said John Wall, focusing on the complicated simplicity of exerting more effort on defense. “Even though guys get to making shots, I think we’re keeping a pace to the game offensively. But we’re just being physical defensively and giving ourselves a chance to win.”
Bradley Beal says that the Wizards are holding each other more accountable than earlier in the season. When asked what that entails: “We’re not afraid to get under somebody’s skin if their man is going on a run, you know, challenge them a little bit. And we accept it. In the past, I think sometimes we would kind of shut down a little bit. But I think now we’re embracing our team, we’re embracing one another, we’re embracing that challenge.”
Brooks, like Wall, accented defense. “We didn’t put our heads down, we’re just going to keep plugging away and keep trying to improve defensively every night. It’s not finished, it’s not even close to being finished, how we need to play defense.” But the coach would have been remiss to not acknowledge his offense. “Definitely in the last stretch of games, we’re in a nice offensive rhythm.”
An appropriate look at the numbers:
Last 8 Games:
- eFG%: 54.5 (ranked 6th)
- OffRtg: 112.1 (6th)
- DefRtg: 108.1 (18th)
- TO Ratio: 12.8 (8th)
- eFG%: 50.9 (12th)
- OffRtg: 105.2 (11th)
- DefRtg: 106.2 (22nd)
- TO Ratio: 14.3 (18th)
Notice anything? The Wizards are turning the ball over less and scoring 6.9 more points per 100 possessions, but their defense is actually allowing 1.9 more points per 100 (despite the lowered league ranking) over the last eight games.
Wall and Beal are combining to average 52.1 points per game over this recent stretch and no other duo in the NBA is playing more minutes together (34.2). Gortat, Morris, and Otto Porter are adding 34.3 points per game to the mix, and that means Washington is even getting 24.2 points per game from their bench recently.
The Wizards are right to eschew contentedness with an impressive victory (even if it was later revealed that Griffin will soon undergo a procedure on his knee, shelving him until sometime in January). And it’s probably good that they can’t stew in the celebration very long before tackling three road games in five days; starting tonight in Indiana, then Chicago on Wednesday followed by a visit to Milwaukee on Friday. Washington will close out 2016 with three home games against Milwaukee, Indiana, and Brooklyn. Sitting two games below .500, a true sign of progress will be if Washington enters 2017 at .500 or above.
— Kyle Weidie (@Truth_About_It) December 18, 2016
NOTED: 4-5 combo lineup data from Sunday’s game:
- Morris & Gortat: 28.8 minutes, +14 in plus-minus
- Nicholson & Gortat: 7.7, minus-4
- Nicholson & Ochefu: 5.4, minus-3
- Ochefu & Gortat: 2.0, minus-3
- Morris & Ochefu: 1.2, minus-1
- Porter & Morris/Gortat: 0.6, plus-1
- 4-guard lineup: 2.3, plus-3