- The Washington Times - Monday, January 26, 2015

The Washington Wizards had survived a lull from their second unit in Portland. Once coach Randy Wittman put his starters back into the game they were able to manage a four-point lead with 4:28 to play against the Trail Blazers last Saturday night.

That lead vanished in 59 seconds. Portland shooting guard Wesley Matthews hit consecutive 3-pointers sandwiched around a missed Nene hook shot in the paint. The Wizards would not lead again and left Portland after squandering a 14-point lead for the second time in as many games. For the night, they were outscored by 24 points at the 3-point line in a seven-point loss.

It’s not uncommon for the Wizards to lose that section of the postgame stats. Only four teams in the league make fewer 3-pointers per game. Part of it is system, part of it is personnel. The main issue is that lack of 3-point shooting is the largest deficiency for an otherwise potent Wizards team.

The Wizards shoot a distinctly higher field-goal percentage than their opponents: 47.5 percent to 43.7. They outrebound them. They pass the ball far better, accumulating 278 more assists through 45 games. They turn the ball over at a similar rate.

Yet, the 30-15 Wizards have outscored their opponents by just 102 points. That’s because they are being devastated by the discrepancy in three-point makes. They have been outscored by 216 points at the 3-point line alone during the season. In their 15 losses, they have been outscored by 87 points from the 3-point line.

“You take what [the] defense gives you is what you kind of say and when there are opportunities we look to take them,” Wittman said recently. “We shoot a high percentage but we don’t have a lot of guys who shoot them.”

The Wizards are fourth in the league in 3-point percentage. As Wittman alluded to, they focus more on opportunity than volume, a growingly archaic offensive approach in the NBA. They remain one of the few teams to predominantly play with two players in the post as opposed to utilizing a player more focused on the 3-point shot as a power forward. At times, the Wizards will use a small lineup, even rarely shifting Paul Pierce to the power forward spot. Typically, they stay with their thunder, which benefits them elsewhere — including unrecorded areas like screen setting — but hurts them in 3-point shooting.

“You’re not going to get, I think, the same as when you have four — or like [the Atlanta Hawks] — the four- and five-shot threes,” Wittman said. “So you have five guys capable of shooting threes, you’re going to have more 3-point attempts. We don’t have that. It’s basically our one, two and three that shoots threes for us. So our attempts are going to be down.”

They have been. Washington’s opponents have attempted 264 more 3-pointers against them. Among the top four teams in the Eastern Conference, the gap between the Wizards‘ attempts and their opponents is by far the largest. The Eastern Conference-leading Hawks have 29 fewer attempts than their opponents. The Toronto Raptors have taken 142 more attempts than the opposition. The Chicago Bulls have the largest disparity in that group, attempting 172 more 3-pointers than their foes in 46 games.

It’s not just the NBA that has morphed into a “three or in the key” league. Youth and high school coaches also preach the approach — and for good reason.

Last season, the San Antonio Spurs led the league in 3-point percentage and were 16th in attempts. They also put up 118 3-pointers in the first five games of the NBA Finals — which tied for the most all-time — on their way to a title.

The prior season, the Miami Heat won the title. It was sixth in the league in attempts and second in percentage, a near-perfect blend of efficiency and volume. The year before, the Dallas Mavericks were 20th in percentage, but fourth in attempts.

“All of us try to take advantage of the 3-point shot,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said when his team came to Washington on Jan. 13. “Personally, I hate it. I don’t think it’s real basketball. I think it’s kind of fake. Why isn’t there a 5-point shot? Seven-point shot? But, it’s there and if you don’t use it, you will fail.

“We all want to be good defensive teams because I don’t think anybody wins championships without playing good defense. But, if you don’t take advantage of threes it’s hard enough to score enough twos when the other guys are scoring five, six, eight, 10, 12 threes every night. So, you have to have that as part of your game.”

Wittman appears to be searching for more shooting. Backup shooting guard Rasual Butler has predictably cooled off. He shot 55.2 percent from behind the 3-point line in November. That dipped to 46.9 in December before hitting a January lull of 39.0. Martell Webster’s playing time has increased the last two games and continues to yo-yo since his Dec. 30 return from offseason back surgery. He’s taken 25 shots; twelve have been 3-pointers. He’s made just two a year after shooting 39.2 percent from behind the 3-point line. Otto Porter rarely shoots 3-pointers and, when he does, at 29.7 percent, does not do it well.

One wild card in the Wizards‘ pursuit of more threes is their open roster spot. Since waiving Glen Rice Jr. on Jan. 7, they have played one short of the 15-player limit. The league’s all-time leader in made 3-pointers, Ray Allen, is floating out there in free agency. The Wizards have reportedly been in contact with Allen’s Arlington-base agent, Jim Tanner, though they would have to get in line for Allen’s services should the 39-year-old choose to return to the league.

In the interim, Washington will search for other ways to close its largest gap.

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