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Wizards' Opponent Breakdown: Games 5-8 (NOP, OKC, MIL, BOS)
Last week, the NBA announced the full schedule for all 88 “seeding games” to take place between the 22 teams partaking in the league’s restart at Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida. Each team, including the Wizards, 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.
Yesterday, in the first part of a two-part series, we broke down the Wizards’ first four seeding games – matchups against the Suns, Nets, Pacers and Sixers. Today, we take a look at their final four games of the seeding period. Washington faces a tough stretch to close the seeding games, facing off against the Pelicans and Thunder before a pair of games with two of the East’s best: the Bucks and Celtics.
NEW ORLEANS PELICANS
Previous matchups:The Pelicans were the only team in the league the Wizards had yet to play prior to the season’s suspension as both matchups were scheduled to take place in the month of April.
Where they left off:
A stretch of six wins in eight games from late January to early February propelled the Pelicans back into serious playoff conversation. In that time, Brandon Ingram (22.5 points and 5.5 rebounds per game) and Zion Williamson (21.7 points and 8.0 rebounds per game) led the way as the team ripped off wins of 15, 14, 28, six, seven and 21 points, respectively. Their two losses in that stretch came against the league-best Bucks and the Rockets.
In the team’s five games played in the month of March, New Orleans is getting production all across the rotation. Three players are averaging 20-plus points, six players averaging over five-plus rebounds and the team’s backcourt duo of Lonzo Ball and Jrue Holiday are each registering over 7.5 assists per game.
Entering the hiatus, the Pelicans had won two straight and were 5-5 in their last 10. At 28-36 on the season, New Orleans currently sits at 10 in the Westerns Conference standings.Player to watch: Zion Williamson
Williamson, the number one pick win the 2019 NBA Draft, billed as one of the league’s next stars, made his debut for the Pelicans on January 22 against the Spurs after missing the first 44 games of the season with a knee injury. Including his debut, Williamson played in 19 of New Orleans’ last 20 games leading into the suspension of the season, averaging 23.6 points and 6.8 rebounds per game. Williamson’s rebounding average, through accumulated over a small sample size of games, tops the rookie class and is 0.8 more boards per game than the second place Rui Hachimura.
Williamson does most of his damage in the paint, using his strength to bully opponents regardless of their position and his athleticism – uncanny for someone of his 285-pound build – to get to the rim with ease. In his debut against San Antonio, he announced his arrival with four 3-pointers made in a span of 2:34 early in the third quarter, but the sequence has since proved to be an anomaly. In 19 games, 95.4% of the rookie’s field goal attempts come from within the arc and over 92 percent from within 10 feet of the rim. Williamson is shooting nearly 59.5% from two-point range this season.
OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER
October 25, 2019: Wizards 97, Thunder 85 (BOX SCORE)
Washington and Oklahoma City’s only prior matchup this season came in the Wizards’ second game of the year, way back on October 25, 2019. With what will be nearly 9.5 months between matchups, there is only so much to take from the first game, though there are some positives for the Wizards to try and replicate.
The Wizards’ defense in 2019-20, while showing signs of improvement in the second half of the season, has been a weak spot. The unit’s showing against the Thunder, however, was among their best of the year. Washington won the game 97-85, holding Oklahoma City to just 15 points in fourth quarter. Chris Paul and Steven Adams, each of whom are among the top five scorers on the team, combined for just 13 points against the Wizards. Bradley Beal struggled from the field, hitting just 7-22 (.318) shots, but came up big in the fourth quarter, scoring eight points on 3-5 (.600) and 2-2 (1.000) from deep. Five Wizards scored in double figures, led by a 21-point, 11-rebound performance from Thomas Bryant.
Where they left off:
Bucking preseason predictions from around the NBA world, the Thunder have been one of the surprise teams of the 2019-20 NBA season. After trading away franchise stalwart Russell Westbrook to Houston, expectations sank, but the team’s performance this season – 40-24 pre-hiatus and fifth in the Western Conference – has Oklahoma City fans as optimistic as they have been since the team’s prime in the early-to-mid 2010s.
After a so-so start to the season, the Thunder got going around mid-December. A win over the Hornets on December 16 marked the start of a 21-6 stretch over the course of nearly two months that propelled them into the uber-competitive second tier of the Western Conference, well ahead of expectations for the season. The Thunder stayed hot heading into the hiatus, winning eight of their last 10 games, including wins over the Pelicans, Nuggets, Spurs, Kings and Celtics. Their only two losses in that time came to the Bucks and Clippers, two of the best teams in the league.
Player to watch: Chris Paul
Chris Paul, acquired by Oklahoma City in the aforementioned Russell Westbrook trade, has been the team’s rock this season. With 14 years of experience, Paul is the grizzled veteran among a group with just two players, Paul included, that have more than six years of experience in the league. Paul, a 10-time All-Star, nine-time member of the All-Defensive team, eight-time member of the All-NBA team, and touted for his basketball IQ, is well-equipped to lead a young, developing roster like the Thunder’s.
Paul ranks just fourth on the team in scoring with 17.7 points per game, ceding most of those duties to Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Danilo Gallinari and Dennis Schroeder who each average over 19.0 points per game. Paul, instead, masters the little things. Paul leads the team and ranks seventh in the league in assist-to-turnover ratio among players averaging at least 25.0 minutes per game (3.11). He leads the team in steals (1.6) and assists (6.8) per game and is first on the team in net rating (6.8). Paul is shooting only 12.8 times per game, but is making the most of each one. He ranks first among guards on the team with a 55.2% effective field goal percentage.
Prior to the NBA’s suspension of the season, the Wizards and Bucks met twice with two more matchups scheduled for late March. In each of the teams’ two meetings so far, offenses thrived, averaging 276.5 combined points. Washington fell in both matchups, but the scoring itself was a point of success given Milwaukee’s league-best 101.9 defensive rating this season, specifically that of Bradley Beal, who averaged 51.0 points in the two games.
The Wizards and Bucks met first on January 28, a 20-point home win for Milwaukee despite playing without reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo. All-Star Khris Middleton led the way for the Bucks with 51 points, 10 rebounds and six assists while Eric Bledsoe scored 34 points of his own and dished out 10 assists. Beal, who scored 47 points in the game, led a third-quarter comeback to bring the Wizards back within reach, but the Bucks’ early lead behind an 88-point first half was too much to overcome.
On February 24, the Bucks and Wizards met again – this time in D.C. Antetokounmpo suited up, but it was again a scoring duel between Beal and Middleton. Beal, coming off a 53-point performance the night before in Chicago, scored 55 points against the Bucks, becoming the first player since Kobe Bryant in 2007 to score 50 points on back-to-back nights. Most of Beal’s production came in the second half, helping overcome a 17-point Milwaukee lead in the fourth quarter to force overtime. Middleton took control in overtime, however, and finished with 40 points to lead the Bucks to a three-point win.
Where they left off:
Statistically, the Bucks have been the best team in the league all season. Milwaukee went into the league’s hiatus with a record of 53-12 and a three-game lead over the Los Angeles Lakers for the best record in the NBA. The Bucks were a dominant 28-3 at home, but had no trouble on the road either, going 25-9 away from Fiserv Forum, the second-best road winning percentage in the league. Their per game point differential (+11.2) is nearly four points higher than the next-best team and ranks fifth in NBA history.
Milwaukee, though, was on a bit of a slide heading into the suspension. After a 20-2 stretch from January 8-March 1, the Bucks dropped four of five and lost three straight games before the hiatus.
Player to watch: Giannis Antetokounmpo
Coming off an MVP award in 2018-19, Antetokounmpo hasn’t missed a beat. He’s averaging career highs in points (29.6), rebounds (13.7) and free throw attempts (10.0) per game despite playing the fewest minutes per game since his rookie season (30.9). Antetokounmpo has scored 30-plus points in 33 of his 57 games this season and has recorded a double-double in all but five games, three of which he finished with nine rebounds.
Antetokounmpo thrust himself into the “best player in the league” conversation, averaging at least 26.0 points, 10.0 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 1.0 blocks and 1.0 steaks in each of the last three seasons. Nearly everything Milwaukee does runs through his hands – and for good reason. At 6’11,” Antetokounmpo has the build to beat big men on each end of the court and the skills to handle the ball like a point guard and facilitate most of Milwaukee’s offense. Antetokounmpo is not only likely to repeat as MVP, but is a leading to candidate to take home his first Defensive Player of the Year award whenever awards are announced.
The Wizards and Celtics have met twice this season with vastly different outcomes. In their first matchup, a November 13 game in Boston, the Wizards fell, 140-133, despite 44 points, six assists and five rebounds from Bradley Beal. The Celtics were led by Kemba Walker, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, who each scored 20-plus points. Both teams shot over 50.0% from the field in a shootout that included 10 lead changes and 11 ties.
In their second meeting, defense – and the Wizards – prevailed. Washington won, 99-94, holding the Celtics to 34.7% from the field. The Wizards, playing without Beal, Thomas Bryant, Davis Bertans, Rui Hachimura and Moritz Wagner, were led by 27 points off the bench by Ish Smith. Smith did most of his damage late, playing the final 13:17 of the game to help seal the Wizards’ win. In the fourth quarter, Smith scored 14 of his 27 points on 6-8 (.750) from the field and accounted for all but three of Washington’s field goals in that time.
Where they left off:
The Celtics 43-21 record is good for third in the Eastern Conference and fifth in the NBA overall, thanks mostly to a 10-1 start to the season and a 12-2 stretch between January and February. Boston has been one of the league’s best teams all season long despite battling injuries to a number of top-line players. The Celtics slid into the hiatus, going 2-4 in their final six games, though all four losses came against teams that have qualified to play in Orlando and their last game, a three-point win, came against a Pacers team not far behind them in the Eastern Conference standings.
While the Celtics’ record depicts them as part of the larger group of contending teams looking to make noise in Orlando, the advanced numbers are even more complimentary of the Boston’s performance. The Celtics, Clippers and Lakers are the only three teams to rank in the top five net rating, offensive rating and defensive rating this season. From an individual perspective, Jayson Tatum (23.6), Kemba Walker (21.2) and Jaylen Brown (20.4) lead the way for Boston on the offensive end and are the only trio of teammates averaging over 20.0 points per game this season.
Player to watch: Jayson Tatum
Jayson Tatum, one of the league’s brightest young stars, playing in his third season in the league, made what many often refer to as “the jump” around the middle of the season. Elevating his game to new heights, Tatum helped sustain team success through a series of injuries to key contributors such as Gordon Heyward, Kemba Walker and fellow young wing Jaylen Brown. This season, Tatum is averaging career highs almost entirely across the board. He’s seen jumps in rebounds, assists and free throw attempts per game – but most notably in scoring. After averaging 13.9 and 15.7 points in his first two years in the NBA, Tatum is scoring 23.6 per game this year – and 29.6 points per game since February 5. Tatum’s leap put the Celtics back on the map in terms of title contention this season and has rewritten most experts’ expectations of where his career can go from here.
At his best, Tatum is a pure scorer. Getting to the basket, scoring from mid-range and hitting from deep are all well within his comfort zone. Scoring off the dribble, in pick-and-roll situations and as a catch-and-shoot threat, Tatum can do it all when it comes to putting the ball in the basket.
The Wizards, though, have done well against Tatum this season, holding him to just 20.0 points per game in their two meetings. Washington’s success against Tatum is due mostly to their ability to keep him in check from distance. In those two games, he is shooting just 22.2% from 3-point range.