NBA

Washington Wizards moving inside perimeter and into playoff picture

By Sports Desk May 06, 2021

A 103-101 loss to the Toronto Raptors on a buzzer-beating three-pointer just over a month ago on April 5 seemed to encompass the Washington Wizards' season perfectly.

Washington blew a 19-point, third-quarter lead en route to dropping to 0-11 when failing to score more than 102 points. It was a fourth straight loss for a team playing their fifth game in a row without 2020 scoring leader Bradley Beal, and the defeat dropped the Wizards to 17-32 – the third-worst record in the Eastern Conference and 3.5 games out of 10th place for the final spot in the play-in tournament.

The Russell Westbrook experiment was looking like a disaster and very little suggested a playoff push was possible over the season's final five and a half weeks given the team's struggles over the season's first three months when Beal was healthy.

Surprisingly, however, the Wizards didn't fold.

They showed some reserve two nights later with Beal back in the lineup, finishing strong in a 131-116 victory over the Orlando Magic after nearly blowing all of a 21-point, third-quarter lead, then escaped with a 110-107 road win over the Golden State Warriors on April 9 with Beal scoring six points in the final 6.1 seconds.

The win streak ended the next night but that was no big surprise as they were on the road against a Phoenix Suns team that is currently battling for the best record in the league, not to mention Beal sat out the second half of a back-to-back.

Since then, though, Washington has compiled the league's second-best record at 11-3, racking up 115 points or more in all 14 of those games. The only other team in the past 30 years to have a streak like this was a 20-game run by the 2018-19 Oklahoma City Thunder – a team also quarterbacked by Westbrook.

Since April 12, the Wizards are averaging an eye-popping 126.0 points per game to lead the NBA, and while Westbrook and Beal have played a big role in the scoring explosion, the offense is getting a boost from some unlikely sources thanks to a somewhat unconventional approach.

In this age of players regularly hoisting up three-point shots, the Wizards are instead focusing on pushing the ball inside.

Washington are attempting 7.1 fewer three-point attempts in their most recent 14 games compared to their first 52 contests, with their 23.4 three-point attempts since April 12 ranking fewest in the league – 3.7 attempts fewer than the next-closest team (San Antonio Spurs) and 20.1(!) fewer than the club with the most tries (Utah Jazz).

The results? An offense that ranks fourth in efficiency since April 12 at 115.4 points per 100 possessions after ranking 23rd at 106.7 through games played on April 11.

The backcourt tandem of Westbrook and Beal, the league's No. 2 scoring duo with 3,068 points – 29 behind the New Orleans Pelicans' Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram – have been the driving force of Washington's recent surge, which should obviously come as no surprise.

Prior to April 12, the Wizards averaged 99.8 points per 100 possessions when neither Westbrook nor Beal were on the court, and 109.9 points when they were playing together. Since April 12, Washington's efficiency without Westbrook and Beal dipped a smidge – 98.9 points per 100 possessions – while its production with both of them on the court has jumped significantly – 117.9 points per 100 possessions.

The offense is running smoother in part because Westbrook is taking smarter shots.

For all the great things the nine-time All-Star and 2016-17 MVP does on the court, shooting three-pointers isn't one of them. Of the 125 players with at least 225 3-point attempts, Westbrook's 31.2 per cent shooting ranks 121st.

Attempting fewer shots from beyond the perimeter would seem to behove Westbrook and the Wizards, and he's complying. After averaging 4.3 three-point attempts in his first 45 games, he's attempting an average of 2.8 three-pointers in the previous 14.

He's done some of his most damage recently from the elbow, where he's shooting 47.9 per cent and has made 35 field goals – second only to Ingram's 41 since April 12.

He made six shots from the elbow in Wednesday's 135-134 road loss to the Milwaukee Bucks, when he finished with 29 points, 17 assists and 12 rebounds for his 19th triple-double in his past 23 games. With 179 triple-doubles in his career, he is now within two of Oscar Robertson's all-time record.

Beal has also cut down a bit on his three-point tries in the past 14 games – 6.4 to 5.5 – but the biggest change to his game in the last three and a half weeks has been he's driving even more to the basket.

Since April 12, his 10.0 field goal attempts on dunks and layups trails only Williamson's 15.1 per game for the league lead. The six-foot-three Beal is making 6.0 of these attempts after making 4.3 and attempting an average of 7.0 dunk and layups through April 11.

While Westbrook and Beal are considered two of the league's top guards, Robin Lopez's name usually isn't mentioned when discussing the NBA's top big men. Heck, he isn't even considered to be the best seven-footer in his own family, but he's been automatic from close range recently.

Among the 173 players with at least 30 shots from within five feet of the basket since April 12, Lopez's 78.4 per cent shooting (29 of 37) ranks sixth in the league. Prior to this stretch, Lopez was shooting 66.5 per cent on all shots within five feet of the hoop – just a tick behind brother Brook at 67.5 per cent.

Lopez isn't the only big man that has stepped up off the bench recently for Washington.

The three-team trade that sent Daniel Gafford from the Chicago Bulls to the Wizards didn't really move the needle on the day of the trade deadline, but it's one that has helped Washington turn their season around.

Of the 199 players with at least 75 field goal attempts since April 12, Gafford ranks fourth in the NBA in eFG per cent at 69.2, just behind Brooklyn Nets superstar Kevin Durant, whose third on the list at 69.7 per cent.

Gafford has also become one of Westbrook's favourite targets, as Westbrook has fed him on 31 made baskets since April 12. That's the most by any guard to a centre and third by any player to a team-mate behind Westbrook to Beal at 39 and the Warriors' Draymond Green to Stephen Curry at 46.

The recent surge in the standings has Washington on the verge of making the playoffs for the first time since 2018, as they sit in 10th place in the East, one-half game back of the ninth-place Indiana Pacers and a comfortable three games ahead of the Toronto Raptors.

Not only are the playoffs within their grasp, with the way Westbrook, Beal and company are playing, the high-octane Wizards have a look of a team nobody would like to face in the postseason.

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