Remember last year's matchup against the Rockets? The Wizards were down by as many as 25-points, came back to take the lead in the fourth quarter with a barrage of transition buckets, then succumbed to their poor habits of jump shooting that inevitably stalled the offense and allowed the Rockets to reclaim the lead and win.
Tonight's gut-wrenching 104-103 win was a much different story. Tonight wasn't about racing down the floor and beating Dwight Howard into the lane. They didn't hit a record amount of threes, nor did they get a huge night from their star point guard. They simply executed, and more importantly, didn't fall apart at the seams when things looked bleak midway through the fourth quarter.
Washington had led by 11 points to begin the fourth, and promptly did everything in their power to will the opposition right back in it. Houston's second unit, led by the triumvirate of Trevor Ariza, Corey Brewer, and Jason Terry led the charge. They stifled a withering Wizards offense by overplaying passing lanes and aggressively defending every pick and roll, and before you know it, Randy Wittman had to sub in his starters to regain control.
Yet it wasn't until Paul Pierce and Nene returned to the game that things ever felt safe. First, it was Pierce slicing his way into the lane, collapsing the defense, and finding Nene open under the basket for a layup. Everything else fell right into place. The next trip down the floor, Nene would collect a Jason Terry miss, find Wall streaking down the floor that led to a Bradley Beal three. Lead back up to five.
But it wouldn't be another classic Wizards-Rockets showdown without a little more drama. The Rockets would go on yet another run, cutting the lead to two once again before Bradley Beal closed things off for good. Washington would go right to him out of the timeout on two consecutive possessions. The first, he'd earn himself a trip to the free throw line, the second, he'd find Pierce for three after breaking down his defender with a slick hesitation dribble in the lane.
If you were looking for the biggest difference between this year's team and last, it's this: they now know how to close out ball games.
Here's two things we learned:
Wall got some help from his wings
The Pierce signing has been well worth it, even if he has underwhelmed on the court. I've mentioned his gravity before, and how teams like Chicago can't overload the strong-side or lock their best defender onto Beal, and tonight was another example. Put in a less-heralded player in place of him, and Trevor Ariza finds his way onto Bradley Beal. This game would look a lot different if Bradley Beal isn't exploiting James Harden's still below-average off-ball defense.
And speaking of Beal, this was his night. He calmly hit all 10 of his free throws, none more important than at the end of regulation to make it a two possession of game. But the most promising development was him attempting 11 three's. He even stepped into a few off the dribble! If the Wizards want to improve their offense, it starts with unleashing their sharp shooter in more creative ways.
Washington bigs have a long road trip ahead
Tonight it was Dwight Howard. Tomorrow it's Tyson Chandler. And next week it's Anthony Davis. All three rank among the best finishers at the basket, and all three are in offenses that accentuate their pick and roll prowess. The Wizards gave up a bevy of easy rolls to the hoop, and while it's easy to point the finger at Marcin Gortat, he was far from the only culprit.
It's very trite to say, but this is why this is a team sport. It starts with Wall fighting through that screen at the point of attack, Gortat getting in better position between the ball handler and Howard, and Kris Humphries rotating over from the weak-side. If anyone botches their assignment, things fall apart quickly, and teams like Houston will exploit it every time down the floor.
Fortunately, things would eventually settle down after the first quarter, and that's when they buckled down. This is the problem Houston faces integrating Josh Smith into the starting lineup. He's a one-man destroyer of floor spacing, but pair that with Patrick Beverley -- who teams willfully ignore on a regular basis -- and it's no wonder the Wizards found ways to shut them down. If you present Wall with an opportunity to play free safety with no abandon, you better be able to swing the ball offensively (Houston ranks last in total assists this season).