The Wiz Hold Off The Charging Bulls, Thanks To Wall’s Career Night
It had been nearly a week since the Washington Wizards had won their last game. Reminder: It was that ferocious, controversial comeback against the Portland Trail Blazers. No controversies or comebacks were necessary to beat the reeling Chicago Bulls on Saturday night, but there was unnecessary drama. Despite all of their recent success this season, the Wizards have not quite found the killer instinct needed to decisively defeat lesser teams.
The Chicago Bulls are not a good basketball team by any stretch of the imagination and their recent slide, losing eight of their last ten games, speaks to the validity of that statement. The Wizards dominated the Bulls 59-40 at the half, and, by the admission of All-Star Jimmy Butler, the Bulls were playing lazy and soft:
“We were just lazy and I hate this word ‘soft.’ I hate it, but that is exactly what we were. They beat us at every 50-50 ball, whooped our tail in transition, we turned the ball over. All those things that we talked about all year long. We played in that first half and then we decided to play some better basketball in the second half.”
If the Bulls played lazy and soft in the first half, but found themselves with the chance to tie the game in its closing seconds, what would that say about how the Wizards played in the second half? Neither “lazy” nor “soft” were spoken in the Wizards’ locker room after the game, but Scott Brooks was not happy with the defensive effort to close the game:
“We’re going to have to look at the film, but it wasn’t obviously as good. They had a lot of opportunities in transition. Early in that third quarter we missed a lot of good shots and the ball bounced to a lot of long rebounds and they got out in transition.”
Brooks is spot on with his assessment. The Bulls outworked the Wizards on the glass 59-48 and also took advantage of the Wizards’ 10 turnovers, converting them into 22 points. Part of the reason that the Wizards had such a hard time on the glass was the fact that starting power forward Markieff Morris missed the game due to a lingering illness. Jason Smith filled in admirably for Markieff’s starter minutes, but there was not another true “4-man” on the active roster last night (Chris McCollough is listed as a power forward but is still on D-League assignment in Arizona).
This forced Scott Brooks to go with a lot of the small-ball lineups featuring Kelly Oubre that gave the team moderate success in the months of December and January. Oubre has fallen out of the rotation in recent weeks because of his poor outside shooting and lack of attentiveness on the defensive end, but he made a strong case to Brooks that he deserves a minimal role, at the very least, in the playoff rotation. The role is that of the spot perimeter defender, who can buy a few minutes on an opposing player with a scoring prowess. Oubre has the athleticism, length, and quick footwork of a player who could be an elite defender in the league, but right now he has not shown enough basketball savvy to be able to put all of those tools together consistently. With the Wizards clinging to a three-point lead with 18 seconds to go, Brooks turned to Oubre to defend Jimmy Butler for the last possession and Oubre delivered by playing smart and not biting on the Butler hesitation and pump-fake, forcing him to take a highly contested shot clanged off of the front of the rim.
When asked about Oubre’s defensive effort, and if was something that he will store in his memory bank for making playoff rotation decisions, Brooks lamented the fact that Oubre’s defense will determine how much he plays:
“He came in with focus on the defensive end. That’s simple with me and Kelly – if he comes in active defensively, he gets opportunities. Bojan [Bogdanovic] has come in and done a great job, so the minutes are going to be a little up-and-down. You’re going to get opportunities by playing with great effort and focus on the proper things that you need to do your role. I thought he was really good tonight. Hopefully that can continue.”
The opportunities for Kelly to play are dwindling because of the addition of Bojan Bogdanovic as well as Jason Smith’s emergence as a solid rotational player, but Oubre is a much better defender then either of those two players and there will be a time where he will be needed to give maximum effort, just as he did last night.
Speaking of Jason Smith’s emergence as a player, the consummate professional received much praise from his teammates and coach for his performance in his first start of the season. John Wall even went as far to call Smith “the most professional teammate that he has ever played with.” Brooks joked about how Smith was not shy to get up his shots: “He was trying to lead the league in scoring in that first half, right? He was good. You know what, he plays the right way. I know everybody says that, but he plays the right way.”
— Hoop District (@HoopDistrictDC) March 18, 2017
Smith finished with 17 points on 6-for-15 shooting, including 3-for-6 from 3-point range. He also grabbed seven rebounds, dished two assists and recorded two blocks. That’s how you stuff a stat sheet. After the game, Smith was as gracious as a politician because the first thing he did was to credit John Wall for distributing the ball before he could even take credit himself:
“It was solely attributed to John (Wall). He was distributing the ball to everybody. I’m just hitting open shots when I can. I think our team was moving the ball great on offense, but we were doing a great job on defense in that first half. It’s a game of runs. They made a run in the second half, we withstood it and we got a good win at home.”
Wall finished with a career-high 20 assists, and was able to masterfully control the Wizards offensively with his selfless play. Wall is inching ever so closely to the assist title for the season—last night’s game bring his average to 10.9 assists per game, trailing only James Harden (11.2 assists per game). Wall was not the only Wizard point guard who had a good night passing the basketball, though.
Brandon Jennings had eight assists, his Wizards’ season high, and he kept the second unit offense flowing. With Jennings and Wall combining for 28 assists, it should be no surprise that the Wizards as a team had a season-high 34 assists, besting their previous mark of 32, which came in the March 1 game against Toronto. Jennings has still not found his shot as a Wizard, but he has built a nice chemistry with Bogdonavic and Ian Mahinmi. The French big man finished with a season-high 16 points on 8-for-11 shooting. All of Mahinmi’s baskets came in the paint, and he has established himself as not only a dominant defensive center, but also as a more than competent finisher around the rim. What Jennings brings to the Wizards is uniformity: he likes to play fast, just as John Wall does, and Scott Brooks understands very well the importance of him playing with pace.
Scott Brooks talking about Jennings playing with pace and thriving with the second unit pic.twitter.com/u8Byx7jM5y
— Troy Haliburton (@TroyHalibur) March 18, 2017
There were many positive things to take away from the game against the Bulls, and there are some things that definitely need to be addressed. Either way, the Wizards are building the necessary chemistry and fortitude that can only come from the personal experience of playing in so many closely contested contests. This team will take the wins as they come, because each victory gets them closer to their desired playoff seeding. There is no rest for the weary, as the team faces the Charlotte Hornets tonight and will need to build on this latest win to ensure that they are playing good basketball through the dog-days of the NBA season.