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Wizards' Opponent Breakdown: Games 1-4 (PHX, BKN, IND, PHI)
With the schedule now released for the NBA’s return to play in Orlando, franchises and fans are equipped to map out their team’s path to the postseason. Washington, and each of the other 21 teams participating in the league’s resumption at Walt Disney World Resort, will play eight “seeding games” to wrap up the regular season and set the 16-team playoff field. At the conclusion of the seeding game period, any team within four games of the eighth seed in either conference will enter into a double-elimination play-in series for the final spot.
Washington’s road to the playoffs is difficult with only the contending teams left standing, but not impossible. At 5.5 games back of the eight-seed Magic and 6.0 games back of the seven-seed Nets, the Wizards only need to make up a deficit of 1.5 games to prompt a play-in series for the final spot in the Eastern Conference Playoffs.
The Wizards open against the Suns on July 31 before matchups with the Nets, Pacers, Sixers, Pelicans, Thunder, Bucks and Celtics over the course of 13 days. Washington is a combined 6-5 (.545) against those teams this season, though they have yet to face off against New Orleans. The schedule provides reason for hope for Wizards fans as the team dodged matchups with most of the league’s elite, but a hot start will be crucial to making up the necessary ground in the standings.
In this two-part series, we dive into the Wizards’ path through the seeding games, breaking down each opponent by their previous matchups with Washington, where they left off before the season was suspended and highlight each team’s key player to watch. Up first, the Wizards’ first four opponents: Phoenix, Brooklyn, Indiana and Philadelphia.
November 27, 2019: Wizards 140, Suns 132 (BOX SCORE)
The Wizards and Suns have met just once this season – a scoreboard-shattering 140-132 shootout win for Washington on November 27. At the time, the Wizards’ offense was playing some of its best basketball of the season. The win over the Suns was one of eight games in an 11-game stretch in which Washington scored over 120 points. Against Phoenix, Washington came out hot, scoring 74 points in the first half as Bradley Beal, Thomas Bryant, Ish Smith and Jordan McRae (now on the Pistons) all scored in double figures in the game’s first two quarters.
The Wizards led by as many as 21 mid-way through the third quarter and by as many as 16 early in the fourth. The Suns, however, made it interesting down the stretch. All-Star Devin Booker scored 14 of his 27 points in the second half to cut the lead to four in the game’s final minutes, but clutch free throws from Beal and Rui Hachimura helped clinch the Wizards win. Bryant, amidst one of his best multi-game runs of the season, scored 23 points to go along with nine rebounds and five assists while Smith notched 21 points on 8-11 (.727) and seven assists off the bench.
Where they left off:
At the time of the league’s suspension, the Suns were 26-39 and ranked 13th in the Western Conference – just one spot above the Wizards in the overall league standings. Phoenix started the year surprisingly hot, going 7-4 in their first 11 games, but saw that pace tail off as the season progressed. An eight-game losing streak in December sent them slipping down the standings, though they kept themselves within reach in a competitive West. Phoenix earned a 140-131 win over league-leading Milwaukee on March 8, a bright spot in a 2-5 slide heading into the hiatus.
The Suns rank in the middle of the pack on both sides of the court – 16th in offensive rating and 19th in defensive rating – and are ninth in pace, setting up what could be a back-and-forth affair against the Wizards. While Devin Booker leads the way for the Suns with 26.1 points per game this season, the Phoenix scoring attack is relatively balanced. In their last 10 games before the suspension of the season, eight Suns averaged over 10.0 points per game. DeAndre Ayton (19.9 points, 12.0 rebounds) and Ricky Rubio (16.8 points, 10.4 assists) each averaged a double-double in that time.
Player to watch: Devin Booker
The unquestioned focal point of the Phoenix offense is Devin Booker, who was selected to his first All-Star game this season. Booker, averaging over 26.0 points, 6.0 assists and 4.0 rebounds for the second season in a row, is already one of the league’s most dynamic perimeter scorers at just 23 years old. Booker can score both inside and out, off the dribble and in catch and shoot situations. From deep, he’s shooting 39.9% on catch-and-shoot threes and 34.2% on triples off the dribble – both impressive numbers for a guard with a usage rate (29.5) as high as his. Heading into the hiatus, Booker had scored 20-plus points in 10 of his last 11 games, averaging 24.7 points and just shy of eight assists per game. Booker ranks seventh in the league with 23 30-point games and has tallied at least seven assists in over half his games played this season.
The Wizards are 2-0 against the Nets this season, making them the only team in Orlando that Washington has beaten multiple times in 2019-20, with both meetings coming in February. In their first matchup, Bradley Beal scored 34 points, including 15 in the final seven minutes, to lead a late Wizards comeback. Three Wizards – Thomas Bryant, Ish Smith and Davis Bertans – came off the bench to score in double figures. Washington trailed by nine with just over seven minutes left in the game before Beal went on a tear, sparking a 23-8 Wizards run to close the game. Spencer Dinwiddie (26 points) and Joe Harris (22 points) led Brooklyn in scoring while Jarrett Allen did a little bit of everything, totaling 13 points, 15 rebounds, five assists and two blocks.
In their second meeting of the season, the Wizards’ bench unit combined for 47 points, but it was again Beal’s magic in the fourth quarter – and a couple clutch plays from newly acquired Jerome Robinson – that put Washington over the top. With the Wizards down 84-81 entering the fourth quarter, Beal turned it on, scoring 17 points on 6-12 (.500) from the field and 3-5 (.600) from 3-point range in the final frame. Beal finished the game with 34 points, seven assists, six rebounds and four steals. With nine seconds left in the game and the Wizards down 106-105, Robinson, playing in just his seventh game with the Wizards, took a pass from a double-teamed Beal and knocked down the lead-taking 3-pointer. Eight seconds later, Robinson fully claimed the moment when he stepped to the line and knocked down a pair of game-sealing free throws.
Where they left off:
Brooklyn went into the hiatus having won four of its last five games, including victories over the Celtics, Spurs and Lakers. The win over Los Angeles came in their final game and was fueled by 20-point performances from Caris LeVert and Spencer Dinwiddie, who have led team in scoring since early February when Kyrie Irving underwent surgery to relieve a right shoulder impingement.
Heading to Orlando, the Nets are 30-34 on the season, good for seventh in the Eastern Conference. Brooklyn’s 2019-20 season has been headlined by injuries to major contributors as key offseason signee Kevin Durant has missed the entire campaign with an Achilles injury and Irving has been in and out of the lineup all season. In their absence, however, a handful of young players have proven their worth and kept the Nets in the playoff picture. While LeVert and Dinwiddie do a little bit of everything, Joe Harris spreads the floor, shooting 41.2% from three; Taurean Prince brings defensive toughness on the wing; and Jarrett Allen commands the paint, averaging 9.5 rebounds and 1.3 blocks despite playing just 25.7 minutes per game.
Player to watch: Spencer Dinwiddie
Brooklyn’s identity for the last few years has been balance across the roster, pulling contributions from everywhere and embodying a “whole is greater than the sum of its parts” approach. Spencer Dinwiddie has stood out among the group; this season, his sixth in the league, Dinwiddie is averaging career highs in points (20.6), assists (6.8) and rebounds (3.5). He’s recorded six games this season with at least 20 points and 10 assists. At 6’5” and bearing a substantial wingspan, Dinwiddie is built for versatility on both ends of the court. According to NBA.com, he’s spent 65.9% of at guard and 29.2% at forward. That versatility will come in handy against a Wizards roster that runs deep with wing contributors. In two games against Washington this season, Dinwiddie is averaging 22.0 points, 4.5 assists and 5.0 rebounds per game.
November 6, 2019: Wizards 106, Pacers 121 (BOX SCORE)
The Wizards and Pacers have met just once this season, a 121-106 Indiana win at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in the first week of November. Since then, a great deal has changed for both teams. Two of the five Wizards players that scored in double figures that night (Isaiah Thomas and CJ Miles) are no longer with the team and the Pacers have since seen All-NBA guard Victor Oladipo, who missed the first 47 games of the season, rejoin the rotation.
There were, however, a few takeaways the Wizards can still pull from the performance. Thomas Bryant, against a formidable Indiana defensive front line, played one of his best games of the season: 20 points, 11 rebounds and 7-7 (1.000) at the free throw line. Bradley Beal, despite shooting 1-12 (.083) from 3-point range, still managed to total 30 points, 21 of which came in the first half, along with five rebounds and five assists.
Where they left off:
At 39-26, the Pacers currently sit at fifth in the Eastern Conference, just two games back of the four seed and tied with the Philadelphia 76ers, who sit in sixth. After starting February with a six-game losing streak, the Pacers bounced back and entered the hiatus as one of the NBA’s hottest teams. Indiana has won eight of its last 11 games, including victories over the Bucks, Blazers, Spurs and Mavericks, all of whom have qualified to play in Orlando. They’ve done it mostly with defense, ranking fourth in the league in defensive rating (105.6) in that time.
For the better part of the season, Indiana has found its success through balance. As they fought to stay afloat without Oladipo, they relied on contributions from all across the roster. Now with Oladipo back, the group has maintained that balanced approach. In their last 11 games, four players averaged over 15.0 points per game: T.J. Warren (21.2), Domantas Sabonis (19.4), Oladipo (16.3) and Malcolm Brogdon (15.1). That group, however, still only accounted for 66.5% of the team’s points per game. Beyond their primary four scorers, Myles Turner, Doug McDermott, Justin Holiday, Jeremy Lamb and Aaron Holiday have all averaged over 7.0 points per game in that time. Indiana’s balance is unique in the modern, star-driven NBA, especially among teams near the top of the standings. The Wizards will rely heavily on their depth at the wing and front court positions to slow down each of Indiana’s threats.
Player to watch: Domantas Sabonis
In his fourth season in the league and third with the Pacers, Sabonis was selected to his first All-Star Game in February and has shown to be one of the league’s best, and perhaps still underrated, young big men. If Sabonis’ averages maintain through the final eight games in Orlando, he will join Giannis Antetokounmpo and DeMarcus Cousins as the only players in the last 15 years to average at least 18.0 points, 12.0 rebounds and 5.0 assists per game over the course of a season. Entering the break, Sabonis had scored 20-plus points in each of his last three games and fell just short of a triple-double (28 points, nine rebounds and eight assists) in his last outing against Boston.
The premier attribute of Sabonis’ game is his touch around the rim, where he does the majority of his scoring. A capable shooter, mostly from mid-range, Sabonis shows enough to keep defenders honest, but attempts 73.5% of his field goals from within 10 feet of the basket, often showing off his footwork and deep repertoire of post moves. An above-average passer, Sabonis is one of just eight non-guards averaging at least 5.0 assists per game this season and recorded five-plus assists in seven of his last nine games before the league’s suspension.
The Wizards and Sixers split their two meetings so far this season, each of which came in December. The first, on December 5, was a six-point Wizards win behind 27 points from Rui Hachimura, 26 points from Bradley Beal and 25 points off the bench from Davis Bertans, who put on one of the most prolific long-range shooting performances of the NBA season. Hachimura (15) and Bertans (19) combined to score 34 points in the second quarter alone. Bertans’ shooting performance in the second quarter – 7-7 (1.000) from the field and 5-5 (1.000) from three, sparked a 19-4 Wizards run to take a double-digit lead into halftime. Bertans was 8-8 from the field and 6-6 from 3-point range in the first half, becoming the first Wizards player to hit at least six 3-pointers in a half without a miss since Trevor Ariza on March 1, 2014. The Wizards will have to find a way to make up for that scoring as they will be without Bertans in Orlando. In the second half, Beal took over, scoring 17 points, eight of which came from the free throw line, to help the Wizards fight off a late Sixers surge.
In their second meeting, it was Philadelphia’s overpowering defense that took control. The Wizards shot just 40.9% from the field and 22.6% from 3-point range. Beal topped 30 again – going for 36 points, eight rebounds and six assists – but it wasn’t enough as a 21-point, 13-rebound double-double from Joel Embiid and a near triple-double from Ben Simmons led Philadelphia to a 17-point win.
Where they left off:
After a 20-7 start, the Sixers success tapered off a bit as the season progressed. Philadelphia heads to Orlando ranked sixth in the Eastern Conference at 39-26 and has already clinched a playoff spot with an 8.5-game lead over Brooklyn and a 9.0-game lead over Orlando. The Sixers rank sixth in the league in defensive rating (107.6), but have not been able to match that caliber of play on the other end. Philadelphia’s offensive ranks 18th in efficiency (109.7). The biggest challenge for the Sixers this season has been staying healthy. Their two biggest stars – Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid – have combined to miss 32 games, while Josh Richardson, another key contributor, has missed 17 games of his own. Simmons missed the final eight games before the suspension of the season, but is expected to return to play in Orlando.
Beyond injuries, Philadelphia’s home-road splits drove much of the conversation around the team this season. On the road, they struggled, going 10-24. At home, however, they had the best winning percentage in the league (.935), going 29-2 at Wells Fargo Center. That home-court advantage – and road-court disadvantage, for that matter – will be rendered null and void in Orlando as all games will be played without fans.
Player to watch: Joel Embiid
The Wizards, like most teams around the NBA, have struggled to keep Joel Embiid in check this season. In his first outing against the Wizards, he went for 26 points, converting on 11-14 (.786) free throws, and 21 rebounds. In his second matchup with Washington, Embiid scored 21 points and grabbed 13 rebounds in a 17-point win.
Embiid ranks first on the team in points (23.4), rebounds (11.8), blocks (1.3) and net rating (4.8) and ranks fourth on the team in assists (3.1). At his best, Embiid is on the shortest short list of elite players in the league and is essentially unstoppable at both ends of the court. At 7’0”, 250 pounds, he is an immovable force in the paint that can also knock down an open 3-pointer if needed, hitting 34.8% from deep this season. Embiid, though, has struggled to stay on the court this season, missing 19 games due to injury, including five from February 27-March 7 due to a left shoulder sprain. The big man returned for one game before the hiatus, going off for 30 points and 14 rebounds in just 27 minutes in an 18-point win over Detroit.
Part two of the Wizards’ opponent breakdown series will be available Tuesday, June 30.