Wizards Clinch Playoff Berth, What’s Next?
Been there, done that. That was the consensus sentiment of Wizards players after learning that they had officially clinched a playoff berth as they showered and packed their assorted gear for yet another five game road trip, grinding their way through the last dog days of the NBA season. It’s not surprising that many of the players feel that way, the Wizards core group: John Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter, and Marcin Gortat have all been intricate pieces of the puzzle to playoff series wins during their tenures.
Part of the reason for so much apathy concerning the playoff berth milestone is the fact that it came against the worst team in the NBA. The Brooklyn Nets literally have the worst record in the Association but have been on a tear toward respectability by playing some pretty good basketball during March. The Nets boasted a record of 6-7 coming into Friday night’s game against the Wizards, including a thrashing of the youngest team in NBA history the night before (Phoenix). Still, head coach Kenny Atkinson before the game knew very well the capabilities of a surging Wizards team and admitted that it would be an uphill battle facing a different animal in the Wizards.
Kenny Atkinson calls facing the Wizards a totally different animal pic.twitter.com/S2ulCsBeN8
— Troy Haliburton (@TroyHalibur) March 24, 2017
The type of animal that Atkinson may have been referring to may be best described as a chamillion, one that adapts to their surroundings to avoid prey. The Wizards are in the process establishing themselves as an elite team in the NBA, but their ascension to such status does not include being dominant in nature. While they enjoyed success in January and February, their post All-Star resume leaves much to be desired. Yes, the Wizards have completed a dazzling array of double-digit comebacks, but they have lacked the complete wire-to-wire dominance displayed by more established teams.
Washington does not have the luxury to coast to a designated top-billing in the NBA playoffs, hence the determination of the organization, from Ted Leonsis down, to ensure this team puts forth the best possible product on a nightly basis. Wall, who was questionable coming into the game because of a lingering migraine, willed his way onto the court and did enough as a floor general in three quarters of play to lead his team to victory. Even after the game, Wall lamented how the symptoms were still lingering:
“I still have a headache. It’s not as bad as it was this morning, I took some medicine. I slept just about all day- till like 4:30. I’m still taking medicine, still trying to do as much treatment as I can, and prepare myself for tomorrow.”
Wall overcame his symptoms and scored 22 points, while also facilitating his way to nine assists in just 24 minutes. The fact that Wall only had to subject himself to 24 minutes of play is a much needed relief for a player who logs 36.5 minutes per game — top 10 in the NBA. Wall sat out the entire fourth quarter because the once maligned Wizards bench is finally figuring out how to optimally integrate three recent additions.
The new formula includes a team that plays with the same style throughout the course of the game, which allows enough continuity for Brooks to mix-and-match players in the rotation as he searches for his playoff lineup. The catalyst bringing all of the Wizards’ newfound symmetry between the bench and the starters is Brandon Jennings. What Jennings has provided in terms of point guard skills has been invaluable in shaping the second unit. What he is doing is simple: getting the ball to teammates in the best possible position to score. But the way he’s doing it is adding a different flare to the game manager nature of the current backup point guard in today’s NBA.
Jennings finished the game with a Wizards season-high 19 points and also added nine assists of his own. Brooks compliments Jennings of his ability to play at a fast pace, and get into the offense as quickly as possible:
“We’re not looking for perfection, what we’re looking for is great effort. Brandon goes out there and pressures the ball, pushes the ball on offense, he makes plays, he takes the shots when he’s there. He might have taken a few that were questionable, but he makes plays and he makes plays for his team.”
Brooks isn’t looking for perfection, and Jennings’ Wizards tenure has been far from perfect, but his mark on this win over the Nets was been tangible. Jennings leads all NBA bench players in assists per game at 5.0, and he’s averaging 5.4 assists as a Wizard in just 14.4 minutes per game. The key aspect that Jennings’ distribution skills adds is allowing developing bench players to more easily fall into their roles. Bogdonavic is allowed to flow in and out of the sets, ready to strike with his array of offensive moves because he’s not being asked to create. Jason Smith and Jennings have built a rapore on the pick-and-pop game, and Smith is cashing in on jumpers from the mid-range all the way to the 3-point line (because Jennings is adept at penetrating deeper into the paint).
Simple pocket passes to Smith seem second nature to Jennings, but the flare he displays, such as when threading the needle to Ian Mahinmi at the rim, are things of YouTube legend. In fact, the best Wizards highlight of the evening was Jennings’ alley-oop pass to Kelly Oubre on a fast break that sent the Verizon Center faithful into hysteria. As TAI’s Kyle Weidie pointed out, some of the Wizards best lineups have included Jennings and the aforementioned cast of bench characters.
— Kyle Weidie (@Truth_About_It) March 23, 2017
In a perfect world, Jennings would be a prime candidate to get more offensive production out of Oubre and Bojan by being able to set them up for open 3-pointers, while Oubre can shield their defensive deficiencies with his length and activity. Combine that with Mhainmi’s rim defense and Smith’s overall basketball acumen, and the Wizards now have the making of a competent NBA bench.
The Brooklyn Nets served as the best kind game simulation the Wizards simply can’t receive in a very limited practice schedule as they navigate their way through the last 10 games of the season. There is no rest for the weary, Washington will start their five-game road trip tonight against the Cleveland Cavaliers as they round out their quest for a division title and maybe even 50 wins. There aren’t a lot of bigger picture takeaways to draw from a contest against the worst team in the NBA, but there are signs of growth to a bench that will be relied upon in the playoffs.