The Crystal Ball is a weekly Monday feature forecasting the future for the Wizards week ahead..
This week’s games:
March 16th, vs. Portland Trailblazers
March 18th, at Utah Jazz
March 20th, at LA Clippers
March 22nd, at Sacramento Kings
Lets go Wiz!
Monday, March 16th
HOME vs. the Portland Trailblazers
What to watch: Clinical screen and roll/pop basketball. The combination of Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge is one of the deadliest 1-2 combinations in basketball, and a tremendous quantity of their lethal strikes come from the screen and roll. Lillard is one of the best PGs in the game at reading this particular set. Go under, and he hits the three. Go over, and he turns the corner. Jump out hard and he splits the trap. Drop down and he hits the floater.
That’s all hard to stop. Alridge’s diversity makes it impossible. Aldridge can knock down the jumper when the big drops off (more on this momentarily). He can roll to the rim and finish. Between Lillard and Aldridge, every possible variation of playing the two man game off the screen is a high percentage option for Portland. When you add the element of Portland’s three point shooting (even minus injured Wes Mathews) as an option for Lillard and Alrdidge to pass to when help comes, you see why Portland sports a 43-20 record and the 8th highest rated offense in the NBA.
The Wizards have been playing with a lot more energy recently. They will need all of that energy, and more, to deal with Portland. Every switch has to be clean, every hedge has to be hard, every close out has to be all out. Any lackadaisical effort during any possession will get exposed. Portland is going to score. But if the Wizards just play with focus and energy, Portland just might not score enough.
Key match-up: LaMarcus Aldridge vs. everyone who guards him.
In case you haven’t paid attention the last three years, LaMarcus Aldridge is AWESOME at basketball. He absolutely annihilated the Rockets in their first round series last year, destroying Dwight Howard and abusing Terrence Jones.
He’s averaging 23 ppg and 11 rpg this season, and he’s exactly the type of player the Wizards have trouble with. Aldridge LOVES the midrange jumper. He drags opponent big men out beyond their comfort zone, then just strokes jumpers. Get too close, and he drives right by. Switch to a smaller defender, and he punishers them in the post. Bring the double, and he distributes to Portland’s myriad of three point shooters. The guy is a legit superstar, with a skill set that sets up perfectly to drop Steve Buckhantz certified daggers all night. Hope he’s off. Hope his teammates are off. Or hope Wittman comes up with a creative scheme to frustrate him. (Pause). You’re right, just hope for the first two.
HINT: FORCE HIM TO THE RIGHT SIDE OF THE FLOOR!! Everything Aldridge does best, he prefers to do on the left side of the floor. Look at this shot chart:
If you can force him off his spots early, and push Lillard to initiate the offense to the right side, you can win early in the possession. Lose early in possessions, and the Wiz will lose the game.
X-factor: Arron Afflalo. Before tearing his Achilles, Wes Mathews was one of the best two-guards in basketball. With Mathews out, Afflalo is trying to fill a huge and critical void in the Blazers offense. Mathews three point shooting provided a ton of spacing for Aldridge and Lillard to work, not to mention a ton of points for himself. Afflalo is not the three point shooter Mathews was, but he is a capable and streaky back-up. If Afflalo is on, and confident, from three point range, the Blazers offense won’t miss a beat. If he’s off, and the Wizards don’t have to turn him into a defensive priority, they’ve got a great chance to win.
Fun factor: John Wall vs. Damian Lillard. A match-up of two of the best in the game, who love to play against the best in the game. Lillard jacking off the dribble threes. Wall blowing by people on the break. Lillard in screen and roll. Wall in whatever the Wizards “offense” is.
So who has the advantage? I’m going with Wall, for one main reason: Lillard hates playing defense. He’ll put his hand up pointing for help after playing lazy defense more often than anyone not named Carmelo Anthony. With Wall’s speeds, a lot of this lazy hand raising gestures should end with him saying “my bad” after Wall lay-ups at the rim.
Prediction: Wizards squeak out a dramatic win giving us all hope for the upcoming west coast road trip.
Wednesday, March 18th
AT the Utah Jazz
What to Watch: The interior. The Jazz feature a number of primary ball handlers who are not great shooters. As a result, a big part of the Jazz offense runs through the paint, whether it’s a drive to the rim, a drive and kick, a post up, or an offensive rebound.
The Jazz also feature perimeter guys who are not exactly behemoths. Paul Pierce and Bradley Beal should be able to draw help on post ups, and drives to the paint, resulting in lay-ups or wide open shots for teammates.
On both ends, for both teams, the shots may not all be on the interior, but that’s where the action will be.
Key matchup: Wizards vs. a superiority complex.
The Wizards will be on a 3-1 run, at worst, heading into this game. They may be on a four game winning streak, kinda feelin themselves, and be thinking, “we’re definitely beating the Jazz tonight.” Don’t sleep.
The Jazz are 10-2 since the All-Star break. That’s not a typo. The Jazz ARE 10-2 since the All-Star break. They will also have the best wing player on the floor in Gordon Hayward. Don’t let his boyish looks fool you. Dude can ball. He’s averaging 19.4 ppg, 4.9 rpg, and 4.2 apg for the season. He also did this in LeBron’s face earlier this season:
If the Wizards have a little let-up because the Jazz are 26-36, they’ll end up let-down after a loss to start their road trip.
X-factor: Rudy Gobert AKA the “Stifle Tower.” If you’re still wondering how the Jazz are 10-2 since the All-Star break, this guy is your explanation.
· Rudy Gobert, PRE-All-Star break: 6.9 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 2.2 blocks per game
· Rudy Gobert, POST-All-Star break: 10.5 ppg, 14.5 rpg, 3.0 bpg
In the last 2 weeks, he’s had a 15 pont-24 rebound game, and a 19 point-22 rebound game. If Nene and Gortat and company don’t come in ready to body and box out, they’re going to end up with Kevin Seraphin translating a whole lot of stuff they don’t want to hear.
Fun factor(s): All the Utah guys you’ve never heard of. Expanding your basketball lexicon is always fun, and the Jazz provide a ton of material you’re probably not familiar with or haven’t heard of in a while. Trey Burke. Alec Burks. Rudy Gobert. Quinn Snyder. Derrick Favors. Dante Exum. Add them all to your NBA dictionary. As Snyder gets more time with the group, you’ll hear their names more and more. And when 2018 comes around, you’ll be able to say, “I TOLD you three years ago Rudy Gobert was going to win defensive player of the year!” Saying “I told you so” is always fun, right?
Prediction: In #SoWizards fashion, the Wizards come in not truly believing how good Utah is, and only accept it after it’s too late. Jazz win as their hockey caliber crowd celebrates.
Friday, March 20th
AT the Los Angeles Clippers
What to Watch: Chris Paul, playoff mode. I’ve been critical in the past of Chris Paul obviously taking games easy. He’s not doing that right now. He understands the time of year, and he’s kicked it into playoff gear for the season’s closing stretch. Don’t just watch CP3 when he has the ball, watch him off the ball, watch him in the team huddle, and watch him on defense. The guy is still a premier defender, on the ball, in the post, and as a help defender. He understands everything going on on the court at all times, and any steps he’s lost over the years, he makes up for with game IQ.
Watching how he guards John Wall will be fascinating, and will serve as foreshadowing into how good teams may guard Wall in the playoffs. The same adjustments coaches make during a series, Paul identifies in the course of games and adjusts accordingly. Which way will he push him one on one? How far will he drop off him on the perimeter? Will he call for traps? How will they play him on pick and roll during crunch time? How does Wall respond? You know what…let’s just keep going with this.
Key matchup: John Wall vs. Chris Paul.
Chris Paul is going to do a lot of stuff in this game that John Wall is going to have to deal with in the playoffs. Trash talk. Cheap elbows. Subtle grabs. Mind games. Dirty plays. Playing the refs. Paul plays with a chippiness, particularly at this time of year, that only Patrick Beverly can match. How Wall responds is going to be critical. Will he try to retaliate while getting outside of his game? Will he get caught up in isolation sets? Or will he step up his game and intensity in a constructive way, like he did against his boy Boogie the other night against the Kings? Paul is still an elite defender, but even elite defenders can’t stay in front of Wall in attack mode. If Wall responds favorably to all of CP3’s antics, we’ll be talking about the Wizards Eastern Conference playoff prognosis with rejuvenated optimism all over again.
X-factor: DeAndre Jordan. Maybe DeAndre is too good of a player right now to be considered an “x-factor,” but I have to talk about him somewhere. He was already averaging 11 and 14 before the All-Star break, but he’s averaging 14 and 18 since. 18 REBOUNDS! That’s amazing. (That’s as amazing as the fact he’s shooting 39.5% from the free throw line in the same stretch. That’s awful. If this were a home game, Chick-Fil-A would be giving out their free sandwiches in advance).
A ton of those rebounds occur on the offensive end. So how does he do it? Energy. Pure and constant energy. Unlike Kevin Love, who rebounds with great anticipation and positioning, Jordan just attacks the ball with sheer athleticism and effort. The Wizards bigs are not exactly guys that we think of as “ferociously attacking the glass.” They better on this night, or DeAndre may post another 20-20 game, in a W.
Fun factor: Blake Griffin vs. Nene. Blake Griffin loves starting scuffles. Nene loves finishing scuffles (isn’t that right Jimmy Butler?). There’s almost certainly a double technical cop out call coming in this game. An ejection is definitely on the table. A suspension is not out of the question. Leeeeet’s get ready to ruuuuuummmmbblllle!
Prediction: The Clippers are the better team, at home, in the midst of a crazy Western playoff race. Would be nice for Wizards to get an honorable win, but I predict a solid hard fought loss.
Sunday, March 22nd
AT the Sacramento Kings
What to Watch: Boogie Cousins. If you watched the game last week, you already know this. Boogie is a handful. Stopping him is critical. The Wizards got pummeled in the first half when they couldn’t stop Cousins, and completely flipped the script when they could.
Key matchup: Wizards vs. Vengeance.
Sacramento has to be pissed about blowing the game in DC, and they will not have forgotten. They will be motivated by revenge, and want to prove that they are the team that dominated the Wizards early in the previous game, not the team that got dominated late.
Sacramento also has a great crowd, and Wall’s boisterous antics during last Saturday’s game will make him a target of their venom, and have them riled up even more than usual. The seeking of vengeance combined with the energy of the Kings home crowd could turn into a royal pain in the Arco.
X-factor: I’m still mad injuries and coach’s decision DNP’s keep messing up my columns, so I’m running this one back.
Rudy Gay. When Rudy Gay plays well, so do the Kings. When Rudy Gay plays poorly, so do the Kings.
· In Wins: 24.4 ppg, 51% FG, 43% 3FG
· In Losses: 18.8 ppg, 42% FG, 33% 3FG
Important Rudy Gay factor: Gay thrives when he gets in a rhythm. It’s of paramount importance that the Wizards don’t give up early lay-ups or dunks to Rudy, or allow him to get to the line. Keep him on the perimeter, force him into a few bad shots, and he’ll likely be off all night. Allow him to throw one down early, and everything he throws up will start going down later.
Fun factor: Wall vs. Boogie, round 2. A lot of people noticed Wall seemed much more conversational than usual with his Kentucky pal DeMarcus Cousins in town. Look for more of the same out of town. Watching these two go back and forth is what professional competition is all about. Jawing. Nudging. Shrugging. Getting that little extra hop in your step, while still exchanging laughs. Wall and Cousins clearly like each other. Yet they also clearly want to beat each other. Watching them play their games within the game was great when we didn’t know what to expect. Now that we know what to look for, it should be even more entertaining. Especially if it’s another fun game.
Prediction: Like last time, Boogie meets his buddy John Wall at half court post-game with his sad face.