The Wizards Were Rolling Thunder in DC
We witnessed the “Rolling Thunder” two months earlier than expected.
The new national television darlings of the NBA put on a show for the TNT audience on consecutive Mondays. This time, the Wizards did not let one of the great players in the league (Westbrook) go off in miraculous fashion to break Wizards fans’ hearts like LeBron did last week.
Russell Westbrook must have left all of his fiery emotions on the Chesapeake Energy arena floor Saturday night, because in 24 minutes of game action he was missing the regular ferocity that even the most casual NBA fan has come to expect. When asked about the emotional hangover from the Golden State game, Westbrook responded, “I’m not sure.” When asked to expound on the lack of energy, Westbrook kept it as simple as possible: “We just weren’t ready to play.”
The Wizards were. There is no way that an NBA team, in this case Oklahoma City, can win a game in which they shoot 34-for-96 (35.4%) from the field without a total collapse from the opponent. Against the Wizards, the Thunder’s offensive performance included a string of 24 consecutive missed shots, an NBA record. The Wizards, in sharp contrast, made 57.5 percent of their field goal attempts and eclipsed the 100-point mark for the 21st straight game.
Scott Brooks was asked about the Wizards scoring outburst and he did not hesitate to credit the team’s ball movement:
Brooks credits the Wizards ball movement tonight pic.twitter.com/jPWIYIupUd
— Troy Haliburton (@TroyHalibur) February 14, 2017
As a team, the Wizards had 24 assists through three quarters (27 for the game). The Wizards’ ball movement was masterful, allowing them to whip the ball around the perimeter, passing up good shots for better ones, and, individually, John Wall was in full “Optimus Dime” mode. He finished with 14 assists, including a between-the-legs pass to Otto Porter on a fast-break that defied principles of physics and resulted in a slam dunk.
The last time the Wizards and Thunder met, Washington blew a fourth-quarter lead because Westbrook was superhuman and the supporting cast was adequate. A mere mortal Westbrook, combined with just 21 points from the other four starters, resulted in a vastly different outcome. No doubt that the Thunder missed a lot of shots that professional basketball players are expected to hit, but credit to the Wizards who have ratcheted up their defense over the last 15 games and boast a top-5 defensive rating (103.1 4th overall) over that span.
Wall acknowledged that the Wizards clearly are much better on the defensive end now than they were in their first meeting against the Thunder:
“Last time we played them, we were up in the fourth quarter and had the chance to win it. We didn’t play the defense we were playing now and weren’t making shots as well as we are now. I think we did everything right, both ends of the floor.”
A key to the Wizards having success against the Thunder defensively and forcing 24 missed shots in a row was not allowing Westbrook to penetrate the defense at will, forcing him to concede the ball to his less talented teammates. The Thunder came into sellout Verizon Center ranked 29th in the NBA in 3-point shooting and most certainly did not help that percentage by going 7-for-34 (20.5%) from deep in this game.
But the entire game was not as smooth as the final score might indicate. At the end of the first quarter the Wizards found themselves up by only six points after starting the game on a 22-6 run. Bradley Beal had to sit down early because of two fouls, but he started the game in full-blown heat check mode. When Brooks was asked about Beal’s efficiency (22 points on just eight shots), he said “[Beal] was in a zone that first quarter, you could just see it.” And Brooks was right—Brad was as locked in as he has ever been in a Wizards uniform, and only needed 22 minutes of game action to make an imprint on the final result.
Beal’s foul trouble forced a lot of Trey Burke and Tomas Satoransky playing time, except the very same ball-movement that allowed the starters to flourish was again almost non-existent among the second unit. I asked coach Brooks specifically what he is seeing from that backcourt pairing that is not allowing them to get into the flow of the offense:
The starters moved the ball great, but the second unit lacks that flow and I asked Brooks about what he's seeing from that backcourt pairing pic.twitter.com/JwGy4d2I94
— Troy Haliburton (@TroyHalibur) February 14, 2017
The problem with the Wizards offense when the second unit is on the floor is that they do not have a player in that lineup who is comfortable enough being both a good decision maker and a competent ball-handler to get the team into the offense in a timely fashion. Trey Burke had a decent scoring night, completing a few dazzling layups and even a buzzer beating jump-shot to end the third quarter, but overall his lack of traditional point guard skills hurts the second unit. Satoransky has displayed the willingness to pass the ball, and pass players open, but is currently lacking the proper ball-handling skills that would instill confidence in Scott Brooks relinquishing the reigns of the second unit to the Czech rookie. Satoransky struggled against the pesky ball pressure from Cameron Payne, who is not even known as a defensive stopper.
It wasn’t until the Wizards went back to their starting lineup at the 7:20 mark of the second quarter that this team was able to finally pull away from the lethargic Thunder. Nursing a 50-47 lead, the Wizards finished the half on a 17-7 run that would open up the game for good.
Markieff Morris was one of the catalysts who allowed the Wizards to go into the halftime locker room up 13 points. Morris scored 15 of his game-high 23 points in the first half as he continues this stretch of some of the most inspiring ball of his career. A large part of Keef’s impact is that he is the one starter who plays significant minutes surrounded by bench players, and is able to shoulder the load offensively in such lineups. When Morris is playing active on both ends of the floor, the Wizards have an elite lineup of players with complementary skill sets. Since the start of the new year, Morris has a team Net Rating of 10.8, the highest mark on the team over that stretch.
While the second quarter was the beginning of the Wizards finding their groove, the third quarter was a tour de force of basketball that allowed the home team to blow the doors off of OKC. This time it was Otto Porter who was the catalyst, scoring 13 of his 18 points in the frame on 4-for-5 shooting from the field. While the Thunder could not buy a bucket, the Wizards offense was firing on all cylinders. And John Wall quarterbacked the whole scenario. Seven of Wall’s 14 assists came in this quarter, leaving no room for a miraculous comeback like the last outing between these two teams.
The fact that the Wizards outscored the Thunder 34-19 in the quarter allowed Scott Brooks to experiment with different lineups that he would otherwise never be able to see. We got another glimpse of Ian Mahinmi, this time playing alongside the other four starters—in nearly four minutes of game action, we were left just as confused about what the team has in Mahinmi as we were coming into tonight. Mahinmi finished the game with four points and no rebounds, but the fact that he has been able to successfully play in the last three games without any setbacks is positive enough. The one negative aspect of using minutes to evaluate Mahinmi is that it takes away minutes from Jason Smith, whose biggest value to the team was stealing minutes at center because he is more effective there than at his listed position of power forward.
The final score may be surprising to some, but this was the same Wizards team over the course of 48 minutes of game action that we’ve seen since January. The starting five is as dynamic and versatile as any 5-man unit in the league and the bench is still as up and down as ever. But it is a luxury not afforded to all to be able to go through these growing pains while maintaining complete dominance. The future is as bright as it ever was for professional basketball in this town, at least for this season.