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Westbrook meets Wall as Thunder challenge Wizards

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OKC won a blowout in November, but things have changed....

W. Bennett Berry

Just a year ago, the Washington Wizards were in the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals. Now, it appears as if the Wizards may miss the playoffs entirely. After struggling to a 21-24 record, there are a lot of theories as to why the Wizards have fallen off this season....

Why are the Wizards bad?

  1. One theory is that the Wizards can't figure out what to run. Last season, Washington was roundly criticized for running an archaic offense that hunted for long twos. This season, coach Randy Wittman vowed to switch it up. The personnel changed as well, with Jared Dudley, Gary Neal, Alan Anderson, and Kelly Oubre all being added to the Wizards roster. All of those players can fire it from beyond the arc. But the Wizards still aren't taking enough threes. Despite being the fifth fastest team in the NBA, the Wizards are only taking the 18th most threes per game.
  2. Also, the Wizards are having trouble finding someone to permanently play the four position. As it is, there's a constant battle between offense and defense. If the Wizards start someone like Jared Dudley, it immediately makes their offense more deadly. But the Wizards give up a lot in the post defensively. At the moment, the Wizards appear to be taking the issue game-by-game. Dudley started on Saturday night against the Rockets, while Nene started Thursday night against the Nuggets.
  3. Lastly, the Wizards defense has hit the toilet. Washington allows the second-worst combined field goal percentage in the league. And despite not defending shots well, the Wizards are actually getting back on defense. You see, the Wizards are the league's fourth worst offensive rebounding team. So, Washington isn't winning extra possessions on offense, nor are they defending shots on defense. Instead, the Wizards are focusing on forcing turnovers, and struggling to find an identity overall. Also, consider that the Wizards don't have a defensive center off the bench, and feature notable defensive sieve Gary Neal on the perimeter. Extended injury to notable defensive staple Nene didn't help either.

Some say that the Wizards went all in to acquire Kevin Durant. All of this year's acquisitions don't have contracts that extend beyond this season. But really, the true answer may be that the Wizards are just unlucky. Washington has had one of the league's toughest early schedules, and has dealt with multiple injuries.

Tonight

In any case, the situation has gotten bad enough that the Wizards felt it necessary to hold a player's only meeting after their loss to the Nuggets on Thursday. On a completely unrelated note, Coach Randy Wittman will not be at the game tonight. Wittman's absence is due to the death of his brother. Don Newman will replace Wittman for the interim. This will be Newman's first game as a head coach since 1998, and his first game as an NBA head coach period.

Given all the instability surrounding the Wizards tonight, the Thunder will definitely have the momentum on their side. Last time these two teams met, the Thunder were able to win behind a torrential downpour of offense. OKC shot 65% from three, went to the line 29 times, and assisted 27 times on 44 made shots. And Kevin Durant didn't even play in the second half.

I wouldn't expect the Wizards to go down that easily this time around. My main line of reasoning is that Bradley Beal and Nene were absent for that game, while Andre Roberson was present. Beal's presence and Roberson's absence should improve the Wizards' three point shooting. Also, Nene's presence will improve the Wizards' defense and rebounding.

Also, John Wall got off to a ridiculously bad start this year. Through the first month of the season, Wall was averaging 16.1 PPG, 39% FG, 29% 3PT, 7.6 APG, and 4.3 TOPG. After the first month of the season, Wall is averaging 21.1 PPG, 43% FG, 36% 3PT, 10.8 APG, and 4.4 TOPG. Nearly across the board, Wall is playing much better basketball right now than he did in November.

Thunder Update

The Oklahoma City Thunder are on the opposite end of the spectrum, as they continue to enjoy a successful season. Last Friday saw a win over the rival Rockets and former star James Harden. The Thunder have won 10 of their last 11 games, though there have been a couple of close calls with Eastern Conference teams in the past week. Injuries to the Thunder's perimeter have forced D.J. Augustin and Anthony Morrow out of retirement, and both seem like ample band-aids.

Nevertheless, OKC is still dealing with lingering issues in the background. Friday's game saw both Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook exceed their season averages in minutes. With KD and Russ coming off of relatively recent injury, how many extra minutes are justified from game-to-game? That's to say nothing of their actual performance, though. Westbrook and Durant are performing at extremely high levels. Durant has scored 20+ points for 34 straight games, and ecliped 30+ points in three of his last four games. Westbrook, meanwhile, is fresh off of his sixth triple-double of the seasons against Houston on Friday.

The median-value players of the Thunder are a mixed bag. Traditional third pillar Serge Ibaka has taken a step back offensively. Ibaka averaged just 11.6 PPG in the month of January, despite averaging 13.3 PPG through November and December. The Thunder don't really have a consistent third pillar to replace Ibaka. Enes Kanter appears to be the most obvious candidate, as he's capable of 20+ point nights. Kanter's consistency is the problem, as he can sometimes also get shut down by a particularly defensively strong big. Waiters is another candidate, and appears to be seriously improving his three point game. Through the last 10 games, Waiters is shooting 47% from three, compared to 32% in the 39 games before that. However, Waiters will need to improve his consistency near the rim if he is to become that ever-valued third option.

As far as the Thunder's other role players, you have to feel positive about what each of them are bringing. Steven Adams gets better and better about finishing Westbrook's pick and rolls, and has pulled off some long hooks. On defense, Adams is as reliable as he's ever been, getting Dwight Howard ejected on Friday. Morrow has played in the last three games, and has shot well from three in all of them. Collison is a nice sneak play every other night. Heck, even Augustin hasn't looked awful as of late. Nevertheless, the return of Payne and Roberson couldn't come soon enough.

Anyway, this is a total trap game. OKC won't have to worry about offensive rebounds this time, thankfully. But they'll have to keep the ball moving on offense, as well as lock down the perimeter on defense.

Prediction: Oklahoma City Thunder 109, Washington Wizards 108.

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

2015-16 NBA Season Game 50
@
21-24
(Won 1)

36-13
(Won 3)
February 1st, 2016
Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
7:00 PM Central Standard Time
TV: Fox Sports Network Oklahoma, Comcast Sports Network Maryland
Injury Report: Cameron Payne (Questionable), Andre Roberson (Out), Kris Humphries (Out), Alan Anderson (Out)
This Season's Matchups: Nov 10 (W 125-101)
Probable Starters
John Wall PG Russell Westbrook
Garrett Temple SG Dion Waiters
Otto Porter SF Kevin Durant
Jared Dudley PF Serge Ibaka
Marcin Gortat C Steven Adams