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Identifying the problem with the Wizards' late-game offense

Washington's first Western Conference road-trip of the season pinpointed some of the flaws that could be potentially fatal moving forward. We take a look at what's hurting them the most, and what can be done to fix it.

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

There was a stretch in the Wizards' game against the Thunder on Friday, just as Kevin Durant was set to run a knife through everyone's hearts, that depicted all that has been wrong about Washington's fourth quarter offense during this road trip.

With under four minutes to go, and moments after Durant bottomed a pull-up three in transition, John Wall raced down the floor against a mostly set Thunder defense, pulled himself back, and meandered to an open spot behind the arc before flinging a three with 17 seconds left on the shot clock.

The ball would carom off the rim and find it's way to KD. He would wait for the opposition to run back, motioned to his teammates to slow it down, which additionally served as a way of saying "I got this." Russell Westbrook obliged, milking the clock before pointing Durant in the direction in which he wanted the play to go. The MVP got the ball up top, made one dribble and stepped back, hitting a routine jumper over Rasual Butler's outstretched arms.

There wasn't much to it, and that's the beauty of OKC's late-game offense. They set up a 1-3 pick and roll with their two best players, knowing it would either draw a switch, a hard double-team, or at the very least, an iso call for arguably the best player on the planet. You can live with those results when you're sporting two of the best shot creators in all of basketball.

Washington doesn't have that luxury, so they do have to work harder when the game inevitably tightens in the fourth quarter. But too often has the ball stuck in either Wall or Bradley Beal's hands, almost like they've forgotten Paul Pierce was signed over the summer.

And this flows into yet another issue: Wall looks indecisive, almost like he's predetermining all of his reads and subsequently curling up into a ball when things go haywire. His offensive rating drops nearly 20 points in the last five minutes of a ball game per's stats page, which amounts to a net-rating of -21.7, and his assist ratio, which totals the number of assists a player averages per 100 possessions, drops from 31.6 to a pedestrian 18.1. All of this and still they're keeping the ball in his hands. He's using up 39.2 percent of his team's possessions, up from his normal average of 27.5.

It takes a superhuman effort from Wall to even deliver that pass to Marcin Gortat, and if it weren't for Andre Roberson misdiagnosing the play, he would've probably come away with the steal.

But the crux of the issue starts at the very beginning, with Wall picking up his dribble prematurely. Take a look at the still below, he has a chance to ad-lib the play and run a dribble handoff with Paul Pierce, but instead sticks to the script, looking only to his roll-man. So he resets, burns more time off the clock, and this time dribbles around the trap (progress!) before somehow finding Gortat in the lane.

wall trap

This is a long-winded way of saying they got two points the hard way, which sums up their half court offense in general. It's often plodding along and telegraphing each step, as if the coaches programmed the players during a timeout. The best offenses can improvise, giving their players carte blanche to run an impromptu pick and roll or a handoff, which empowers them to determine their next course of action. There's no reason why the Wizards should struggle this much to conjure up clean looks with the amount of talent they have.

But back to Wall -- a lot of it is on him. He simply hasn't looked like himself during this road trip and he's making the simplest of plays look incredibly difficult. He's not stepping into jumpers with the same confidence he does at home, and it's compelling him to make these split-second decisions in mid-air:

wall pass

At home, this is probably a look-off pass that may get Anthony Davis leaning in the wrong direction, or at the bare minimum, it's a pull-up jumper he takes with confidence.

And here, with him inexplicably passing up an opportunity to pull-up from the right elbow:


How many times has he done that in his career?

It's a long season, and the Wizards (and by extension, Wall) will work out the kinks. They're not over-extending Paul Pierce, and they've toggled between Rasual Butler and Otto Porter at small forward well into fourth quarters. There is reason for panic given they're going through the same lulls that upended them last season, but it's not as if there isn't a silver lining out there.

They're 23-11, and have shown even in this road-trip what they're capable of. The execution wasn't perfect in Houston, but they struck a happy-medium between Wall, Pierce, and Bradley Beal late in the fourth on offense to stave off the surging Rockets. That's the formula for success moving forward. We'd be looking at this road-trip a lot differently had Rasual Butler connected on his two open threes late in OKC, or if Bradley Beal just hit that corner three in transition that would've cut the Thunder lead to two with two minutes to go. Instead, Durant gathered the miss, finished an improbable alley-oop with Pierce fouling him, and hit the free throw. Boom, Wizards down 8 in a span of 20 seconds.

That's all it takes. The Wizards are learning (and winning) along the way, but they're still not fairing well against playoff caliber opponents. That has to change, and it starts with Randy Wittman gaining a better understanding of what works for his team in the final frame of close ball games.