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Full strength Thunder skirmish with hurt Wizards

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The Wizards use a couple of unique strategies that separate them from the rest of the NBA. How do the Thunder adjust?

The WALLZZERDD, coming to you from live streaming broadbrain.
The WALLZZERDD, coming to you from live streaming broadbrain.
William Bennett Berry

How good are the Washington Wizards? I think the question is answered well by Nick Bilka, in a recent post for Bullets Forever:

"The Wizards have established themselves in the upper echelon of the Eastern Conference. They have certainly beaten the teams that they are supposed to beat, and have victories over some other solid teams like the Cavs and the Clippers. That said, they don't have a great record against the top teams in the East, and haven't really been tested by the best in the West. The Wizards can change that over the next two weeks, heading on a Western road trip that sees them face some of the best teams in the NBA in Houston, Dallas, San Antonio and Oklahoma City."

Looks like the jury's still out. This team isn't blowing anyone out of the water yet, but they have a solid track record and could still make a lot of noise. That's not the most exciting news in the world, but consider this: The Wizards are one of the most unique teams in the NBA. I did a quick read-through of the most recent posts on Bullets Forever and found two very distinguishing characteristics.

1. The Wizards take long twos

This is a pretty persistent storyline, originally sparked by a media interview with Bradley Beal about a year ago. Beal said that his jump shot was "the shot Witt wanted me to take".  Media and fans started to take notice, and now it's pretty much an openly accepted fact. Most stat-geeks don't understand why the Wizards would fall in love with the most inefficient shot in basketball, and will often roundly criticize Wittman for living in the past. Take this Eye on Basketball column from Matt Moore last year. There, Moore talks about how the Pacers let the Wizards take as many mid-range shots as they wanted during the first three games of the Eastern Conference Semis. It didn't work until the third game, but the Wizards basically shot themselves in the foot.

Since then, Wittman has seemingly openly admitted his team's unique emphasis. Take this quote from a Pre-Season Washington Post article:

"We’re going to take open shots," Wittman emphasized. "If a team wants to give us mid-range open shots, we’re going to take them. I’m going to tell a guy that has a wide-open 15-foot jumper to take three steps back and shoot a three? I’m not going to do that."

Wittman has done his best to follow up on his word. This Nov 14th column from John Schuhmann of tells us that the Wizards were 3rd in the league at shots attempted from 10-19 feet. That was a good while ago, but there hasn't been a really significant shake-up in Washington since then, so it's safe to assume that they're still doing it.

2. The Wizards play a bench mob, mostly during the first half

This has been a source of frustration for many Wizards fans as well. Take this rant from Michael D. Sykes in a recap of the Wiz' Tuesday Night loss to the Mavs:

"The bench mob that has been so effective for the Wizards this season was just so inept in tonight's contest. The bench largely plays in the latter half of the first quarter, a bulk of the second quarter and about the last three minutes of the third quarter. They play in the fourth as well, but that leash is normally pulled quickly if things go bad.

Tonight, with the Mavericks' lead at three going into the second quarter, it ballooned to an 11 point lead until Wittman called a timeout just after the seven minute mark. Greg Smith, Richard Jefferson, J.J. Barea and Charlie Villanueva were able to get things going in the quarter. That was even before Monta Ellis came in and destroyed the Wizards in the transition game.

The Wizards' bench is good, but it lacks a stabilizing force when things go wrong. This is why coaches commonly stagger starter minutes in with bench units. Rarely are teams good enough to have five man bench units on the floor for lengthy periods of time and the Wizards are no exception."

Given these two pieces of information, here's what I think Scott Brooks should do to counter the Wizards' unique attack.

1. Pressure around screens, but don't trap.

Generally, the Thunder have the guard go over screens when defending the pick and roll. The big man will either then play deep and defend the drive or play high and attempt to trap the ball handler. It's rare that the big uses the third option, which is to sink back to mid-range and defend against a potential shot. The Wizards simply aren't going to go to the rim a lot, so why give them an open pick and pop?

Using this strategy has the downside of creating less turnovers. But I cite as evidence come of the Wizards recent losses. They lost to the Bulls by 9, registering only 8 turnovers. They lost to the Suns by 12, registering only 11 turnovers. Heck, they lost to the Raptors by 19, and only registered 13 turnovers there. All I'm trying to say is that it is possible to beat the Wizards solely on shot defense, and I believe the Thunder are capable of doing that.

2. Use Kevin Durant's minutes early

If the Wizards are going to roll out their B-team for really long portions of the first half, why not make them pay? Other teams have done it in the past. Check out this Popcorn Machine from Washington's loss to Cleveland earlier this year, when Blatt left in LeBron for the entire first quarter and dusted off Irving at the dawn of the second. The chart speaks for itself. I honestly don't have another example to pull, simply because the upper-echelon teams that the Wiz have been facing don't have a lot of star power. But Durant and Westbrook are in the same echelon as LeBron and Irving.

Furthermore, Brooks has used the strategy before. Back on December 12th, Kevin Durant had a 30 minute restriction on his game time. But Brooks saw that the Thunder were building a lead against the Suns, and re-inserted Durant after a short rest in the first quarter. The effect was phenomenal, so much so that KD was taken out and re-re-inserted during the second quarter. The Thunder sealed the game early, and KD got to take the majority of the second half off.


Player Chatter

I can't end this preview without talking about the actual players that are on Washington's roster, so here's a quick run down. John Wall is their main guy, impressing everybody with incredible athleticism that gets him to the rim and a very reliable mid-range shot. Wall's defense is also uncanny, as he averages 2.1 steals a game. Wall struggles a bit from three (31% on the year), so it's probably advisable to let him have that shot. Also, interestingly enough, John Wall is shooting 28% from the floor against Russell Westbrook for his career.

But before you think the Thunder are going to run out and crush the Wizards, consider their other players. Bradley Beal and Rasual Butler are absolute fiends from three, and will make the Thunder pay for sagging off on them every single time.  Paul Pierce doesn't provide the same percentages, but his veteran savvy, ability to get to the line, and occasional nights of mid-range brilliance can really help out Washington from time to time. Lastly, the Wizards have an army of pick and pop bigs, including Marcin Gortat, Nene Hilario, Kris Humphries, and Kevin Seraphin. All of them will make any NBA team pay for playing ICE pick and roll defense, and all have varying degrees of a post-up game. That said, Gortat and Humphries are more pick and roll oriented, while Nene and Seraphin are more likely to score via a post move.

On the Thunder's end, we may have an inkling of what the Thunder's playoff rotation might be like. On New Year's Eve against the Suns, with the Thunder at full rotational health for the first time in weeks, Brooks only went 9 men deep. Jeremy Lamb and Nick Collison were nowhere to be seen, and Ish Smith was only brought in as a second half replacement for the ejected Russell Westbrook.

Truth be told, I really like this nine-man rotation as a general guideline for this team to follow. Sure, it's nice for Brooks to alter it now and then, but during most games I don't really see the benefit of having Collison in the post or Lamb on the perimeter. Their minutes could be better served having Jones serve as a threat from three in place of Collison, and having Morrow or Roberson providing the offense/defense that Lamb never could. Obviously, as a third string point guard, Ish Smith is redundant unless you want to play matchup chess or need a quick defender.

That being said. Having Nick Collison, Jeremy Lamb, and Ish Smith literally sitting on the bench and ready to come into the game at any time is an absolute joy. Remember when our deep bench would consist of players like Hasheem Thabeet, DeAndre Liggins, and Ronnie Brewer? I'd gladly play the Thunder's worst player today (Lance Thomas) over any of those guys. This team rolls deep.

Anyway, this is one of those games the Thunder simply must win. The Wizards are likely going to have at least one key player out or at least not 100%, and John Wall has a horrible track record against Russell Westbrook. Furthermore, due to Russell Westbrook's first half suspension during the Suns game, this will be the Thunder's first true full-strength game since KD's injury in Golden State. The emotional significance of that will certainly motivate the players, especially given OKC's bad late season loss to the Wizards last year. I think that the Thunder will be able to seal this one in the last few minutes, but really, it just depends on who plays and how flexible Brooks will be towards Wittman's strategies.

Prediction: Oklahoma City Thunder 96, Washington Wizards 88.

What do you think of tonight's game? Drop a comment and let us know!

2014-15 NBA Season Game 34
(Lost 1)

(Won 1)
January 2nd, 2014
Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
7:00 PM Central Standard Time
TV: Fox Sports Network Oklahoma, Comcast Sports Network Maryland
Injury Report: Drew Gooden, Nene Hilario, Bradley Beal (Questionable), Mitch McGary (Out)
Last Season's Matchups: Nov 10th (W 106-105), Feb 1 (L 81-96)
Probable Starters
John Wall PG Russell Westbrook
Bradley Beal SG Andre Roberson
Paul Pierce SF Kevin Durant
Nene Hilario PF Serge Ibaka
Marcin Gortat C Steven Adams