There have been headlines aplenty for the Washington Wizards this season. The historic turnaround following a disastrous 2-8 start. The “funeral game,” when every player showed up wearing all black and buried the Celtics by 15. The story of “Death Row D.C.”
And through two games, both wins over Southeast Division rival Atlanta, another trend has become apparent: Washington poses a legitimate threat in the East thanks to the offensive machine that is its starting lineup. It’s a group that sits at +37 through about 40 minutes of playing time, by far the best of any lineup this postseason. It’s a group that, frankly, the Hawks haven’t been able to keep up with.
It’s also a group that knows itself very well. The starting five—John Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter Jr., Markieff Morris and Marcin Gortat—played 1347 minutes together during the regular season, leading the league by over 400 minutes, and posted the third-best plus/minus of any lineup in the league. The year before, the most-used Washington lineup—Wall, Porter Jr., Gortat, Jared Dudley and Garrett Temple—played just 311 minutes and posted a negative plus-minus. It’s never a good sign when your most-used lineup gets outscored. Last year, Washington had 18 different starting lineups. This year it had 10. Continuity matters.
Interestingly enough, though, it’s not a lineup that truly features any new faces. All five guys were on last year’s roster. Rather, every single player in that lineup has improved drastically since last year’s playoff-less campaign.
It starts, as it should, with Wall. He has improved in every facet. The former No. 1 overall pick has always been a nightmare to defend in transition with a deadly combination of speed, explosiveness and handle, but this year he’s been far smarter with the ball in his hands as well. Wall lowered his turnover percentage from 19.7 as the primary ball-handler on the break last year to 15.7 this year. It’s tough to stop a player who can do this one possession:
And then this:
Wall shot over 45 percent from the field for the first time in his career this regular season and shot 38.8 percent from between 16 feet and the three-point line, nearly three percent better than his career mark. That number has jumped to 45.5 percent in the playoffs. He’s also hit four of his six three-pointers in the playoffs. As a result, Wall has been among the most dominant players early in this postseason, averaging 32 points and 11.5 assists in the first two games.
But the Wizards’ improvement this season and subsequent 2-0 start to the playoffs can’t be attributed to just a single player—far from it. Beal has been outstanding, transforming from an oft-injured talent to a consistent star, setting career highs in games played (77), field goal percentage (48.2), efficient field goal percentage (56.6). He also scored a career-high 23.1 ppg, up nearly six points per game from last season.
And while Beal has struggled shooting the ball in the playoffs, he has also come through in crunch time, scoring 11 points in the fourth quarter of Game 1 and 16 in the fourth quarter of Game 2. Beal also plays a big role in the Wizards’ transition game: Only seven players scored more points in transition than Beal this regular season, and only one of those seven—Kevin Durant—did it more efficiently. Beal’s most lethal spot is as a trailer, which is typically where big men run on the break. But Beal excels in trailing the play and finding spots for the lead guard—often Wall—to kick it back to him. He’s able to knock down open shots like these with regularity.
Porter Jr. has also taken a massive step forward. In his contract year, the Georgetown product made more threes this year (148) than he did in his first three seasons combined (137) and expanded his game into the midrange, shooting 50.6 percent on shots between 15 feet and the arc, ninth in the league. But Porter has struggled this postseason with the Hawks’ renewed focus on not letting him get good looks. That, combined with his foul trouble, has limited Porter Jr.’s effectiveness.
At the other forward spot is Morris, who made his playoff debut this year after four-and-a-half essentially lost years in Phoenix. He did not disappoint, putting up 21 points, nabbing seven boards and collecting four blocks. When on his game, Morris is a matchup nightmare at 6-foot-10 and with the ability to put the ball on the floor, face up and run the floor on the break. Morris’ athleticism was on display in Game 1, when he breezed up and down the court, finishing in transition several times.
In the example below, Morris runs the floor much harder than either Atlanta big man, and with Mike Dunleavy (No. 34) focused on Porter Jr. on the near wing and Kent Bazemore (No. 24) in no man’s land stuck between Beal on the far wing and Morris running the lane, it’s right down main street for the Wizards’ power forward.
A similar situation plays out later in the game, as three Hawks get back. But Dennis Schroder (No. 17) is more focused on Porter Jr. in the corner than he is on Morris. Once Wall blows by Bazemore, there’s nothing Tim Hardaway Jr. (No. 10) can do to prevent another Morris slam.
Beal, Porter Jr., Morris and Kelly Oubre Jr., who comes off the bench, all ranked inside the top 20 of points per possession in transition this regular season (min. 90 possessions). The Warriors are the only other team that places four players inside the top 50. And while Wall’s transition abilities have always been there, the weapons around him — three of them being starters — is what has helped the Wizards jump from the 18th-most efficient team in transition last year to third-most efficient this year.
Rounding out the five is Gortat, who has continued his career year (10.8 points and 10.3 rebounds per game) with two strong postseason performances. In Game 2, with Porter Jr. and Morris essentially invisible and Beal struggling with his shot early, it was Gortat collecting blocks by the bunches and crashing the boards on both ends. The Polish Hammer finished with 14 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks, becoming only the second player in franchise history to register a stat line like that in the playoffs. He has dominated Howard thus far, so much so that Howard didn’t play at all in the fourth quarter as the Hawks attempted to space the floor and limit Gortat’s effectiveness. Imagine reading that sentence about a decade ago when the two shared a locker room for the Orlando Magic, Howard a budding superstar and Gortat his unassuming backup.
Head coach Scott Brooks knows that his starters are his best five by far, and that’s why he has played them such extended minutes: Even with the midseason additions of Bogan Bogdanovic and Brandon Jennings, the Wizards don’t have an especially deep bench, especially with Ian Mahinmi sidelined with a calf strain. So even after Jennings’ six-point burst early in the fourth quarter of Game 2 gave the Verizon Center renewed life and helped tie the game up, Brooks brought Wall and Gortat in for Jennings and Jason Smith with over six minutes left and Morris in for Bogdanovic a few minutes later. The starting five became the finishing five, and it finished strong, outscoring the Hawks 13-4 over the next four minutes to put the game to rest. On the back of another fantastic performance from the starters, the hosts had held serve in the nation’s capital.
The questions now are whether the starters can continue to play well and whether it’ll be enough. Every single Washington non-starter has a negative plus-minus thus far, while all five starters are on the positive side. The starters have been far from flawless, though: Porter Jr. hasn’t been effective and Beal, who is just six of 21 from three this postseason, said his shot “sucks” following Game 2. For the Wizards to finish off the Hawks and make noise deeper into the playoffs, it’ll be on the shoulders of the starting (and closing) five. It certainly hasn’t been perfect, but so far it’s been enough to put the East on notice more so than ever before.