The Wizards are geared up for a Midwest excursion that tips off tonight in Houston. Five teams, four of them legit Finals contenders, one of them an up and coming playoff team with an aspiring MVP candidate. If the Wizards were any wise, they’d take heed to the advice displayed on Marcin Gortat’s summertime t-shirt, embroidered on 100% cotton:
The Wiz have had an apt measure of preparation for this trip over the past few games. There were lessons learned in two home losses to the Phoenix Suns and Chicago Bulls when they were mangled by tough defense and derailed from executing their game based on the protocol of running and passing. Then there was the wire-to-wire bullying of the Knicks on Christmas Day, followed by ambushing the Celtics two days later. Granted the Knicks are melting with inferiority and the Celtics are in the midst of a colossal overhaul, the Wizards not only needed those games to resuscitate themselves back into their appropriate ways of playing, but also to generate the momentum needed to successfully embark on this grueling road trip.
The next five games will unquestionably be the most nut-crushing stretch for the Wizards this season. It will be an assessment of strength and character, an exploiter of weakness, and thusly, a measurement of resilience. Up until now the Wizards have been able to handle 21 of their first 29 opponents for wins via the philosophy of defense and ball movement. Those are two areas in which the Wizards rank in the league’s top 5, and two areas in which the Wizards will need to continue excelling in as five opposing Western powerhouses await their arrival. A successful mission in the Midwest is sure to render an increase in respectability, enough to erase any doubts as they pertain to the legitimacy of the team’s elite status.
BREAKING: Martell Webster has been cleared for his season debut and will be in uniform and active tonight against the Rockets.
And there it is. Finally overcoming another one of his recurring back ailments, Martell Webster is back and set to retool John Wall with yet another marksman from long range. ‘Tell’s back issues have deprived him from operating much on offense anywhere besides the arc and it’s safe to assume the same will apply now. This also brings me to another topic and that’s the Wizards’ perpetual negligence of 3-point shots attempted. The Wizards rank number one overall in 3-point percentage at a .390 clip, nearly a full percent better than the second-ranked Clippers who are at .383. However, the Wizards continue to remain in the league’s bottom three in 3-point attempts and while it hasn’t served as a criminal detriment to the team’s offensive outputs, it is disheartening to wonder why the Wizards don’t take advantage of such an asset. Webster can hopefully help diminish this particular bad habit.
The first of five games in this road trip takes place in Houston tonight against a Rockets team that is surging behind an MVP-worthy season from James Harden and share the same record as the Wizards at 21-8, good enough for 4th best in an uber-competitive Western Conference. Alongside Harden plays Dwight Howard, who has been averaging 18.9 points and 13.4 rebounds over the seven games he’s been back from a knee injury.
Oh, and there’s also a guy named Trevor Ariza. You may remember him. Here are some fun facts about him:
As a Wizard in 2013-14, Ariza accomplished a career high .407 in 3-point percentage and was just 0.5 points shy of a career high in points per game. As a Rocket in 2014-15, Ariza’s 3-point percentage has plummeted to .330, bad enough to be third worst of his career. Lack of the John Wall effect much? I’d say it’s a significant factor because while Patrick Beverley is molding into a fair point guard, he’s not even remotely as threatening as John Wall and a reason why Ariza no longer has the comfort of as many open looks and a sweet dishes the way he used to in DC.
Here. Have a flashback.
I mentioned before that the Wizards attain the highest 3-point percentage in the league, yet don’t take nearly enough attempts. Well, the Rockets attempt the highest number of 3’s per game – 34.1, which is almost 20 more attempts than the Wizards – and they also make the highest number of 3’s per game – 11.8. That’s a 3-point percentage of .345, just under the league average.
Back to Trevor Ariza real quick. The Wizards have attempted a total of just 451 3-pointers as a team, 539 attempts less than the Rockets. Ariza alone has attempted 224 3-pointers, which is 117 attempts more than the player who leads the Wizards in 3-point attempts, Paul Pierce.
This proves a few things, some obvious: 1) the Rockets take a shit ton of 3’s. They average seven more attempts per game than the next most frequent 3-point shooting team which is the Suns. 2) The Wizards obviously don’t take enough but when they do, they often make them, but it’s still very desirable for them to take more, so they can make more. 3) Trevor Ariza is still not gun shy, regardless of whether or not he’s being set up beautifully by John Wall, and 4) the Wizards must take note of all this and ramp up the perimeter defense like we know they can.
An important key for the Wizards is the fact that the Rockets don’t swing the ball much. They rank 25th in the league in assists per game and their top passer is not their point guard. A pressing defense like Washington’s can knock a team who doesn’t like to pass out of rhythm and stagnate their offense. Sound perimeter defense to contest shots and force bad ones, physicality down low against Howard and a highly improved Donatas Motiejunas, rebounding and running in transition, racing back on transition defense, these are all the ingredients for successful Wizards basketball, and ingredients that’ll require a slight overdose in order to compete adequately against a premiere Western Conference team.