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As playoff race heats up, another pivotal week awaits Wizards
Coming off of their first three-game losing streak of the season, the Wizards bounced back with a 2-1 showing last week in a pair of games against the Heat and a visit to New Orleans. Next, another slate of playoff teams awaits, including another home-road back-to-back featuring the Timberwolves and Celtics on Tuesday and Wednesday. Finally, the week wraps up Saturday back at Capital One Arena with another pivotal matchup with the Pacers.
It’s officially the middle of March, which means the end of the regular season is now less than a month away. That means, of course, that the playoff race is starting to become more defined. Unfortunately, the only thing we know for sure is that a photo finish is likely ahead for seeds 3-8 in the East. Indiana currently occupies the third seed, 0.5 games ahead of Cleveland and just a game ahead of Washington. In total, the eighth-seeded Bucks are still only 3.5 games back of the Pacers.
Every game will be magnified from here on out, particularly against East playoff teams like Indiana, and any slide could result in a tumble down the standings. With that said, the Wizards are weathering the storm well as John Wall continues to work his way back closer to full health.
Let’s take a look at what to watch for from this week’s games…
Tuesday vs. Timberwolves (39-29) – 7 p.m., NBCSW/1500 AM
The biggest story in Minnesota of late has been the absence of All-Star guard Jimmy Butler, who’s continuing to recover from a knee injury. Without him, the Wolves haven’t been themselves (understandably), but did just pick up a huge win over the Warriors on Sunday. Even without Butler, Minnesota has plenty of weapons that can hurt.
It starts with another All-Star in Karl-Anthony Towns, who’s putting up another great season averaging 20.5 points, 12.2 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game. Andrew Wiggins (17.9 points) is always a threat to do a little bit of everything, while a veteran trio of Jeff Teague, Taj Gibson and Jamal Crawford round out their double-digit scorers. The T-Wolves also just added Derrick Rose, who’s familiar with head coach Tom Thibodeau.
As far as style of play, Minnesota doesn’t turn the ball over much (their 12.5 turnovers per game are nearly tied for the best mark in the NBA) and can score with the best in the league. Their scoring hasn’t dropped much without Butler, but not having him hasn’t helped a defense that was already sub-par in terms of defensive rating. The Wolves will give up plenty of points despite playing at a relatively low pace by today’s league standards.
Wednesday at Celtics (46-21) – 8 p.m., ESPN/1500 AM
Another injury to a star could land in the Wizards’ favor on what looked like one of the toughest back-to-backs of the season a week ago. Kyrie Irving may be resting a sore knee when Washington visits Boston, which will likely hand the keys to either Terry Rozier or Marcus Smart. The Celtics’ next two leading scorers after Irving are young guns Jaylen Brown (14.1 points) and Jayson Tatum (13.3), but Boston is still impressively deep with players like Al Horford and Marcus Morris still available. Head coach Brad Stevens has dealt with injuries all season, and he’s still managed to guide his squad to a top-two seed in the East.
The reason the Celtics have been so consistent is the fact that it still starts with defense in Boston. They allow the second-lowest amount of points per game in the NBA this season despite scoring just over 104 themselves (20th in the league). Similar to Minnesota, the Celtics also are tough to force turnovers on, and they’re just a hair ahead of the T-Wolves in terms of pace at a calm 98.37 possessions per 48 minutes. For reference, the Wizards’ pace number to date is 99.20. At any rate, the Celtics are good at controlling the game with their defense, and they make teams pay offensively with a willingness to shoot the 3-point ball. They shoot the league’s fourth-best percentage from deep (37.3) and also take the sixth-most 3-pointers per game. That’s a good formula for being efficient with their possessions regardless of who's on the floor.
Saturday vs. Pacers (39-28) – 7 p.m., NBCSW/1500 AM
Indiana enters the week in good form, having won five of their last six games including a narrow win in Washington just over a week ago. Everyone’s healthy for the Pacers, and they’re playing like it’s all come together. Victor Oladipo still leads the team by a mile in scoring with 23.8 points per game in what has been a breakout year for the first-time All-Star. After him, seven players average eight points per game or better, making it tough to find a specific target to slow down.
When the Wizards last saw the Pacers, they dropped a low-scoring affair (98-95) and allowed Oladipo to go off for 33 points. While Indiana isn’t a prolific team in terms of points per game, they are ninth in the NBA in offensive rating. The Pacers also don’t turn the ball over much – though they did 16 times last weekend in D.C. – and are the fifth-best team at creating opponent turnovers. While Oladipo may be their only star, Indiana plays well together and can mix up their lineup as well as any team in the East. The Pacers are a tough team to beat, and with Saturday marking the third and final time the Wizards will see them in the regular season, a win to claim a head-to-head tiebreaker could prove to be critical in playoff seeding come April.