Wizards Avoid Tripping in the Desert by Proving the Bench is No Mirage | Wizards Blog Truth About It.net

Wizards Avoid Tripping in the Desert by Proving the Bench is No Mirage

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Updated: March 8, 2017

Welcome to the wacky world of Washington Wizards basketball, where gorillas and finger-guns make cameos and a blown 22-point lead somehow ends up being an afterthought.

Some way to start a five-game road trip, but as the old adage goes: a win is, in fact, a win.

The Wizards were victorious, 131-127, but in classic #SoWizards fashion, they made the final outcome more difficult than it needed to be. Completing their 12th double-digit comeback of the season is noteworthy, but the fact that they were even down 11 points after being up by as many as 22 points exhibits just how chaotic the game in the desert was.

The Wizards built a bit of momentum in the opening frame, once Ian Mahinmi came into the game for Marcin Gortat, who picked up two very early fouls because he was at a disadvantage against a small and speedy Suns team determined to attack him in the paint. Mahinmi immediately impacted the game by showing his fleet-footed defense that allows him to not only magically hedge all the way out to the guards on pick-and-rolls, but also somehow make it all the way back to the basket to defend the rim. His presence brought the Suns’ scoring powers to a near-screeching halt: Phoenix had 14 points when Mahinmi entered the game with 7:52 left in the first quarter and finished with 25 points by the end of the frame.

While Mahimi was great on the defensive end, Bradley Beal continued his hot shooting and was the offensive spark that the Wizards needed early on. Beal hit five of his first six shots and scored 15 points in the first six minutes of action, buoying Washington’s offensive production. John Wall assisted on four of those Beal shots, and the Wizards’ floor general appeared to be in command of his troops by facilitating for others, as his buffed up jumper seemed a tad off.

Something else that was off: Scott Brooks’ planned rotation, because at the 10:45 mark of the second quarter Wall was thrust right back into action after only sitting for a few brief moments. His understudy, Brandon Jennings, was ejected from the game for making “gestures” toward Suns players.

Former Wizard Jared Dudley escalated the situation by running up on Jason Smith after what seemed to be a routine hard NBA screen (Smith was flagged for a personal foul). After digging a little deeper as to why Dudley may have overreacted the way that he did, I found that Earl Watson implored to his team that someone had to stand up for their younger players last week after Vince Carter was ejected for elbowing budding star Devin Booker.

Watson on March 1st, per Doug Haller of the Arizona Republic:

“We have to find someone in free agency or the first chance we get who can protect our top offensive players,” Watson said. “That has to happen. If not, Book is going to see a lot of elbows. It’s the reason Kobe went out and got Ron Artest and Matt Barnes. It’s the reason why Jordan went out and got guys who could protect him.”

“Who’s going to protect our young guys?” Watson said. “It’s the situation we’re in. We have to find a guy who can come in and make another team think twice about doing that. That should be a top priority for us moving forward.”

Dudley is a smart player and he knew exactly what he was doing. The coach said they needed an enforcer, and Dudley stepped up in a time of need to defend Tyler Ulis, who is listed at 5-foot-9 and weighs 150 pounds soaking wet. The Wizards players had no idea that Earl Watson had given such a mandate to the Suns players, so they reacted accordingly with their normal bravado, and the situation then escalated to the point where everyone was in someone’s face. The problem with Jennings’ reaction is the fact that while the refs were trying to deescalate the situation, Jennings was emphatically pointing his fingers in Dudley’s face, presumable questioning his “tough guy antics.” You can never go wrong with the one finger point, but Jennings used two fingers with the thumb out, which everyone acknowledges as the international sign for finger-guns (a gesture particularly sensitive to  those affiliated with the Washington Wizards, thanks to Gilbert Arenas). Jennings was ejected for the gesture and so was Dudley for the initial reaction.

At this point in the game the Wizards were only up 41-29, and with the momentum seemingly switched on to the Suns, Washington was still able to rattle off another run to extend their lead to 22 points at 56-34. The bench unit continued their sensational stretch of basketball and the Wizards appeared to be coasting to victory. Then Marcin Gortat and Markieff Morris came back into the game and the team energy dipped. The young legs of Phoenix proceeded to outscore the Wizards 27-7 and pull to within 63-61 in the final minutes of the first half.  The trio of Suns who were doing the most damage in this stretch were Eric Bledsoe, Leandro Barbosa, and big man Alan Williams. Bledsoe (30 points including 4-9 from 3-point range on the night) displayed his unique skill set that could only remind Wizards fans of his former college teammate, John Wall, and Barbosa was nailing corner 3s as if he were still in Oracle arena. Williams used his wide frame to move Gortat and Keef out of the paint as he pulled down 10 total rebounds to go with his 15 points off the bench.

After that roller coaster of a first half, the Wizards still found themselves in prime position to get a victory with a seven-point halftime lead, but they came out so flat to start the second half that they ended up down 11 after a 20-2 run by Phoenix. That’s when Wall decided that he could no longer be the overseer of the game. He stopped relying on his jumper (that was not falling) and started playing attacking basketball to try to get his team back in contention.

By attacking the way he did in the second half, Wall did two very important things that enabled the Wizards to pull out the win. One, he opened up passing lanes for the shooters to be more open off of his drives, and two, he got the Suns in so much foul trouble that the Wizards were able to shoot a season high 53 free throw attempts. The main beneficiary of both of those ancillary factors was Bojan Bogdonavic, who shot a career high 16-for-16 from the charity stripe and is now a perfect 29-for-29 during his brief Wizard tenure. Bojan was also able to free himself on the perimeter to shoot 3-for-6 on his 3s, bringing his Wizards 3-point percentage up to 57 percent.

The most interesting thing Bogey did was to totally keep his cool when the Suns Gorilla dove onto the court inches away from Bojan’s heels to grab an object that rolled onto the floor. After the game, however, Bojan kept it real and admitted that the diving Gorilla scared him a little bit.

Another beneficiary of Wall opening the game up in the second half with his dribble-drives was Jason “Does Not Miss” Smith, who finished with 17 points on 6-for-7 shooting including 2-for-2 from the beyond the arc. There have been a lot of members of the Wizards community who have been clamoring for more Jason Smith recently, and he certainly did not let them down with his play. Smith is displaying a level of consistency with his jump shot that will make it tough for him to not be on the court more often down the stretch. In fact, Smith is showing himself to be much more dependable than Kelly Oubre, who turned himself into a fan favorite with his defensive efforts but has lacked the overall presence on the court recently that would instill confidence from his coaches and teammates. Smith is a consummate professional who stays ready despite not knowing if and how much he will play. This was just Smith’s third game in the rotation in the seven games post All-Star break, and he is a plus-33 in 37 minutes of action.

The fact that the Wizards are finding ways to win basketball games without great production from their starters is a great sign of this team’s potential for a playoff run. Washington’s newfound depth will need to be showcased for the rest of this road trip that includes four more games over the span of seven days, starting tonight in Denver.

Troy Haliburton on Twitter
Troy Haliburton
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Troy Haliburton is a native Washingtonian, and graduate of Gonzaga College High School and Morehouse College. He is going into his second season writing for Truth About It, and also writes for sports analytics website numberfire.com. You can find him in a district bike lane in the Northwest neighborhood of Bloomingdale.