Play-in Preview: The 3 keys to victory for the Washington Wizards

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We’ve finally made it. Nearly every game during these last two months of Washington Wizards basketball has been a complete roller coaster. Now the opportunity is right in front of them to secure a spot in the playoffs with a win tonight over the Boston Celtics. Even though a loss technically would not eliminate the Wizards from the playoffs quite yet, this is a must-win game.

Here are the three keys to victory for the Washington Wizards in this play-in contest:

Washington Wizards keys to victory: Limit the pull-up jumpers

The Celtics shoot pull-up jumpers—lots of them. Per Second Spectrum, they attempted the second-most in the league in 2020-21, including the third-most from beyond the arc. It will be imperative for the Wizards to force Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker — who get most of these out of high pick-and-roll — into exploring other options. So how will the Wizards defend it?

  • Option 1: Switching

A non-starter. While it may be tempting to bait Tatum into his iso game (averaging just 0.82 points per play on isolations, which is in the 42nd percentile per Second Spectrum), Washington does not have the personnel to switch 1-5. Having one of the centers on an island spells doom.

  • Option 2: Hard trap/blitz

Forcing the rock out of the ball-handler’s hands is intriguing, and the Wizards actually tried it (with mixed results) in the matchup on February 28. Fortunately for them, Daniel Theis ain’t walking through that door anymore. Tristian Thompson is extremely limited as a ball-handler and decision-maker in 4-on-3s, so I would try this if I were Washington, particularly when Daniel Gafford is in the game. They could also mix in some hedge-and-recover looks with Gafford. Robert Williams, on the other hand, has shown to be a prescient passer in these situations. With the Celtics figuring to have ample shooting, things could get dicey when he’s out there for the Wizards.

  • Option 3: Get to the level of the ball

This would put tons of pressure on the Wizards’ big-man trio to simultaneously pressure the ball-handler and backpedal with the roll-man.  This could be effective with a different Wizards roster: Kemba’s quickness has waned, and Tatum will settle for step-backs. Gafford may have the hands and mobility to be that kind of defender in time, but honestly, he (and Alex Len/Robin Lopez) will probably get exposed in these types of coverages. Robert Williams is also a lethal lob-threat behind the defense.

  • Option 4: Drop

Washington’s preferred defense (for a good reason), as Len and Lopez are both staunch rim-protectors, while Gafford is an imposing shot-blocker. The Wizards here would be relying on the guards to fight hard through screens, getting rearview contests, and living with the results. The problem here is that the results aren’t always too pretty, as Brett Brown and the Philadelphia 76ers can attest. Russell Westbrook also hasn’t gotten through a screen all year long (except against Stephen Curry), and Bradley Beal – still nursing a hamstring strain – will likely be trying to limit his movement on the defensive end.

Prolific pull-up jump shooters like Tatum and Walker can put the defense in a bind, and there aren’t many appealing options with a traditional five-man. It’s why we saw both Toronto and Miami play tons of zone against Boston in the 2019-20 playoffs. I would probably start with a more conservative style (drop) unless the Celtics start raining fire. Hopefully, Thompson gets more tick over Williams; he’s been a dreadful finisher for years, and I don’t see him being able to score over any of the Wizards’ bigs. More aggressive styles (trapping or getting to the level of the ball) put more stress on the help defense. The issue is that it often leaves either a miniature point guard (Raul Neto or Ish Smith) or a non-factor (Davis Bertans or Rui Hachimura) alone on the back-side. It turns out having/playing two-way wings is important. Who knew?

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