- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The Washington Wizards surprised the NBA in the playoffs last spring with a dynamic, small-ball lineup that coach Randy Wittman had never deployed in 82 regular-season games. After seeing efficiency and productivity that was unrivaled by any other player grouping during the playoffs, Wittman and general manager Ernie Grunfeld spent the offseason adding players designed to fit a small-ball scheme.

Better equipped with personnel to fit the scheme, the Wizards have stayed consistently small through their first nine games this season. They’ve established the up-tempo game that was the central focus of the offseason, leading the Eastern Conference through Tuesday, with 103 possessions per game — seven more than they averaged last season.

At times, the Wizards have looked like offensive juggernauts in the new system. At others, the offense has looked so poor that it’s unclear whether the team is running within a scheme at all.

If the they are to contend in the much-improved Eastern Conference, the Wizards will have to iron out the inconsistencies.

The benefits of the high-octane, pace-and-space scheme were on full display in the fourth quarter of Washington’s game against the Milwaukee Bucks on Oct. 30, their second of the season. The Wizards opened the final quarter of that game trailing by 10 points. They hadn’t led since taking a 2-0 lead on the first possession.

The offense exploded for 36 points in the final quarter, draining six 3-pointers and outscoring the Bucks by 15 points to clinch a 118-113 victory. The comeback confirmed that the new-look Wizards are capable of the impressive scoring runs seen in the playoffs.

“[Overcoming] a 10-point lead isn’t that much to us anymore,” guard Bradley Beal said. “In the past I think there were times where we would just get tense and tight and we would just be all over the place not knowing what to do.”

The comeback showcased the advantages of playing small ball. Even when leads seem insurmountable, the quick pace of the offense combined with four serviceable 3-point shooters sharing the court have the potential to evaporate deficits quickly.

“Playing this way, 10 points can be changed in two or three minutes,” guard Ramon Sessions said. “You’ve got to just adjust and know there’s going to be some swings at times. There’s going to be some drops at times. But [we have to] just keep playing how we want to play — pushing the ball, pushing the tempo.”

The next game against the New York Knicks, which the Wizards lost, 117-110, was a glimpse of a potential weakness of the new scheme: Too much focus on offense. The Knicks’ 117 points, the most they’ve scored since that game, were a direct result of the Wizards’ lackadaisical defense. Compounding the problem was that Washington committed 17 turnovers.

“We didn’t have too many live turnovers,” point guard John Wall said. “Most of them were moving screens, stepping out of bounds and things like that.”

Those kinds of turnovers point to growing pains in a new offensive scheme rather than poor individual decision-making. The Wizards appeared to learn from the mistakes in their next outing, committing just 10 turnovers en route to a 102-99 victory over the San Antonio Spurs on Nov. 4.

Much like their first meeting with the Bucks, the Wizards trailed the Spurs through the entire second and third quarters. They were down by eight early in the fourth before the offense shifted gears and racked up 36 points to clinch a last-second win.

But the problems plaguing the Wizards during their loss to the Knicks flared up again in their next two contests. Washington gave up 118 points to the Boston Celtics while turning the ball over 24 times. The main cause of those turnovers, according to Wittman, was predetermining passes without reading the defense.

“Some of the passes we threw against Boston, some of their defenders needed helmets. We were hitting them in the head,” Wittman said. “I’m dead serious. We could have seriously hurt a couple of the Celtics players with our passes.”

Twenty-four turnovers seemed like an astounding number until the Wizards committed the same amount in their next game, which ended in a 114-99 loss to the Atlanta Hawks. Wittman blamed Atlanta’s high point total on the Wizards’ offense rather than their defense, which “wasn’t too bad” in half-court sets. The defensive problems began with turnovers leading to fastbreaks.

“We try too many risky plays,” Wittman said following the loss to the Hawks. “Thirteen of the [24] had nothing to do with what the defense did. We’ve got to eliminate those. We’ve got too many of those. Catching the ball standing out of bounds. Running on the fast break with nobody around. I don’t think that’s good defense that causes those turnovers.”

Although it’s early in the season, the Wizards’ 104.3 points per game are still fewer than the 106.4 points they are allowing, the most in the Eastern Conference. The Wizards’ defense, which gave up just 98.5 points per game last season, has lacked effort at times. Not helping the cause are the Wizards’ two additional turnovers per game compared to last season. Rather than blaming the turnovers on the new offensive scheme, Wall holds the team’s execution accountable.

“I’m not blaming the new offense at all,” Wall said. “We’ve just got to get to our spaces. Even if we had the same offense we’ve had in the past, it’s just about knowing when to cut at the right time, knowing when to be in the right situation at the right time.”

When Wall penetrates the lane and draws defenders in, for example, it should free up players on the perimeter. If the players aren’t where they are expected to be, it doesn’t matter how open they are.

In the fourth quarter against the Celtics, the Wizards had possession with 9:37 remaining after a pair of Kelly Olynyk made free throws. Two defenders converged on Wall as he drove towards the baseline. He picked up his dribble and elevated, presumably looking for whichever teammate had been left open as a result of the double-team.

Eight seconds had run off the shot clock, more than enough time for the Wizards to get into a half-court set. But when Wall left the floor, only Marcin Gortat was in his direct line of vision, standing five feet in front of him, guarded. His other three teammates on the court — Beal, Jared Dudley and rookie Kelly Oubre Jr. — were stacked at the top of the key behind the 3-point line. Wall waved his hands in exasperation after the play, which resulted in a turnover.

“[When] we drive baseline, [a player] is supposed to be in the corner,” Wall said. “[If] the guy leaves the corner, that’s not the offense.”

With Beal on the sidelines after injuring his shoulder against the Hawks, the Wizards lost their next game to the Oklahoma City Thunder, 125-101. Though they were blown out, the Wizards showed progress in taking care of the ball with just eight turnovers.

“The keys were defense and turnovers,” Wall said. “We took care of the turnovers but we didn’t play defense.”

Following the three-game skid, the Wizards won their past two games in part by continuing to limit their miscues on offense. The defense wasn’t spectacular in the game, but the Wizards committed just 11 turnovers and secured a 108-99 victory over the Orlando Magic. On Tuesday, Washington flashed the potential for dominance as it routed the Bucks, 115-86, with strong efforts on both ends of the court.

It may be too early to say the Wizards have moved past their early season mistakes, but if they remain committed to running an offense that helped them succeed in the playoffs, it could help them return there.

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