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Cruisin' Thunder pop in on perplexing Wizards

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KD's return home looms over this game, but the Wizards are a strong team right now. What do the Thunder need to do to win?

Off to see the Wizards of Oz! But NEVER to join them!
Off to see the Wizards of Oz! But NEVER to join them!
William Bennett Berry

KD is returning to his hometown, and Wizards fans are obsessed with bringing him home. There will be recruitment signs in the crowd.

It certainly casts an odd emotional aura over this game. Is this the beginning of the end? Will KD really abandon his home away from home to return to his childhood home? It's a story that everyone has an opinion on, and it's a story that nobody in Oklahoma wants to talk about.

But honestly, who cares? Washington has a great team right now, and it would be a tremendous feat for Oklahoma City to sweep them. Not much has changed with the Wizards since the Thunder last saw them on January 2nd. The Wiz have continued to impress, winning games against prime opponents like Chicago and San Antonio. But Washington split a back to back series with the weaker Brooklyn Nets, and were outright stomped by the conference leading Atlanta Hawks.

What holds back the Wizards from being a great team?

If you said it's a lack of talent, you'd be wrong. John Wall is one of the most intelligent guards in the game, and was praised as such by Zach Lowe in a recent piece for the Grantland basketball hour.

There's a better answer within a recent fanpost by Alan Jenkins over at Bullets Forever. I've laid out the Cliff's Notes of his post below:

1. The Wizards must limit turnovers.

This is becoming more of a problem as of late. Right now, the Wizards rank 17th in the league committing 14.7 turnovers per game. This isn’t disastrous as there are teams who commit more turnovers than the Wiz and have better records (Golden State, Houston) but this is not a winning recipe. Both Golden State and Houston play a run and gun, pickup game style of basketball. The Wizards do like to get out in transition whenever possible but don’t take very many shots less than eight seconds into the shot clock.

2. The Wizards have an above-average defense, but they're not so great defending the pick and roll.

The Wizards’ big men seldom hedge on a ball screen and I don’t get why.

3. The Wizards aren't consistent enough.

So far this season, the Wizards for the most part, wake up for the big games but play down to their opponents for some of the "should win" games. Case and point was this past Friday night against Brooklyn. Coming off impressive back-to-back wins over the Spurs and Bulls in as many nights, the Wizards sleepwalked their way through the Brooklyn game. Might I add, Brooklyn was without starting point guard Deron Williams and was on a seven game losing streak. To lose is one thing; to get beat by 22 on your home court is another. Losing by 22 to a team that was seven games under .500 due to lethargy and poor effort is unacceptable for a team vying to win the Eastern Conference.

This wasn’t just a one-time thing either. Take a look at the Heat game where the Wiz won by two but had to squeak by a team playing without Chris Bosh. Granted the team won but even Paul Pierce got in his teammates’ faces saying it was unacceptable. Some other examples include narrow wins over Orlando, Boston, Detroit, and Indiana.

With OKC being a prime opponent, the ESPN coverage, and the whole KD situation, I seriously doubt that Washington won't show up to this game. But the first two issues described by Jenkins were spot on. I'll discuss them both.

Regarding turnovers, the Thunder can force them pretty consistently. Westbrook, Waiters and Morrow are pretty much always looking to strip the ball, and the Thunder's opponents have averaged 17 TOs over the past three games. Compare that to a season average of 14, and you start to see how these new Thunder are evolving. Regardless, even without Waiters, the Thunder forced 15 turnovers against Washington on January 2nd. Those were key in that victory. Tonight, OKC will continue to lay on the pressure while protecting the rim and exposing the weak side.

Regarding Washington's pick and roll defense, I noticed during the last matchup that the Wizards definitely liked to have their big men protect the rim and don't mind switching. The downside to this type of defense means that it's easier for players to get shots off the dribble. But the upside is that the rim is always protected and turnovers can happen on the perimeter. Against the Thunder, it means that Durant, Westbrook, and Jackson are able to get whatever shot they want but drive to the rim a bit less. It also means that spot shooters like Ibaka and Morrow will do their work primarily in transition and are more likely to have a quiet night.

The addition of Waiters will probably give the Thunder a huge advantage when the second units roll out. In the past, Reggie Jackson was almost destined to struggle against the Wizards, since he can rarely get his jumpshot going. But Waiters is very adept at creating for himself and shooting off the dribble, so he's going to be the key to getting things going. Once that happens, things might open up at the rim for Jackson or on the perimeter for Morrow, and the Thunder could run away with it.

Thus, I'm predicting a really solid Thunder victory tonight. Sure, the Wizards have a few factors in their favor. The Thunder just flew in from Miami. That game in Miami went this distance. KD had an injury scare in Miami. Drew Gooden didn't play on January 2nd, but will play tonight. Yadda yadda. Honestly, this edition of the Thunder finally has a grasp on what it takes to close out games. We saw this same Thunder team struggling to work as a unit during critical times right around the new year, but now they're working within their offense and not getting too antsy on defense. Westbrook doesn't look like he's playing angry anymore, and OKC was perfect down the stretch against Miami. Maybe I'm crazy, but I think this game an easy win.

Prediction: Oklahoma City Thunder 109, Washington Wizards 99.

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

2014-15 NBA Season Game 42
(Won 3)

(Won 2)
January 21st, 2015
The Verizon Center, Washington, District of Columbia
6:00 PM Central Standard Time
TV: Entertainment Sports Programming Network, Fox Sports Network Oklahoma, Comcast Sports Network Washington
Injury Report:  Mitch McGary (Out)
This Season's Matchups: Jan 2 (W 109-102)
Probable Starters
Russell Westbrook PG John Wall
Andre Roberson SG Bradley Beal
Kevin Durant SF Paul Pierce
Serge Ibaka PF Nene Hilario
Steven Adams C Marcin Gortat