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What went wrong in the Wizards’ late collapse against the Grizzlies

NBA: Washington Wizards at Memphis Grizzlies Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Marcin Gortat corralled a defense rebound off a Markieff Morris block with 3:33 left in regulation in the Wizards’ game on Sunday against the Grizzlies. At that point, the Wizards had possession, an eight point lead, and a 96.9 percent chance of winning the game, according to Inpredictable. On top of that, the Wizards were better rested than the Grizzlies. Washington hadn’t played since Thursday night, Memphis got back into town early Sunday morning after a loss to the Knicks on Saturday night.

So let’s be clear: This wasn’t the matter of simply losing a winnable game. This was the Wizards letting a near-certain win fall out of their hands. They weren’t just victims of some lucky bounces, they had to actively lose this game. So let’s take a look at what went wrong for the Wizards over a seven minute stretch of regulation and overtime, where the Grizzlies went on a 22-4 run to turn a certain loss into a convincing victory.

First, we need to talk about the possession right after Gortat grabbed that rebound. If the Wizards get a score on this possession, they would have been up by double-digits with three minutes left, and the game would have effectively been over. With a chance to ice the game, John Wall went straight into a post-up against Mike Conley on the elbow. Wall is one of the better post-up guards in the league, but Conley is one of the better defenders. The ball never left Wall’s hands before he wound up settling for a 14-foot fadeaway jumper that careened off the rim and created a chance for Conley and Vince Carter to push the ball up court.

Wall tried to stop the two-on-one fastbreak by trying to swat Vince Carter’s layup, but he mistimed his jump and wound up whacking Carter on the head instead. While it wasn’t a malicious play, it was still a flagrant-1, which gave the Grizzlies two free throws and the ball. Naturally, Carter hit both free throws and Conley shook off Otto Porter to hit a three. In the span of thirty seconds, the game swung from the Wizards having a chance to take a double-digit lead to being a one possession game.

You’d hope a sudden twist like this would encourage the Wizards to move the ball around more and get back to what worked when they jumped out to a lead during the fourth quarter, but it didn’t happen. Wall and Beal dominated the ball and weren’t able to do much with it. They were 1-6 from the field during the final 3:33 of regulation. The only two possessions where the Wizards earned points were on one that came right after a timeout with less than two minutes to go, and with 24 seconds left when Wall drew contact and made two free throws to take a 100-97 lead.

Despite all their offensive missteps, all the Wizards need to do was prevent the Grizzlies from making a three and they would have escaped with a win. Of course, that didn’t happen.

There are a few interesting things at work here. Obviously, Vince Carter got away with a lot on that moving screen, but you can’t expect the referees to call that in the closing seconds of a game. What’s more concerning is the poor recognition and communication by Wall and Gortat to get around Carter’s screen and do a better job of contesting Gasol’s shot.

Now, you might say oh well, if Marc Gasol beats you on a deep three you just have to live with it, but I don’t think that works here. It would be one thing if the Grizzlies had gone through their progression and Gasol was the last option, but he was clearly the first read on this play. You can’t just let him get that clean of a look, especially when the screener is Vince Carter.

But even despite THAT breakdown, the Wizards still had a great chance to win this game before overtime. Washington had 15.7 seconds left on the clock to get a shot and take the lead back. Scott Brooks opted against calling a timeout and John Wall decided to play for the last shot. On a fundamental level, both of those decisions were probably the correct call. You don’t want to try to get a score against a set Memphis defense and you don’t want to give them a chance to get the win in regulation if you miss the shot. That said, the execution here just wasn’t good.

J. Michael of CSN Mid-Atlantic already did a great job of breaking down what went wrong on the final play so I won’t dive in on that, but needless to say the team could have done more be less predictable on that play, and less predictable over that whole stretch. The malaise carried on into overtime, where the Wizards didn’t score until after the game had gotten so out of hand that Scott Brooks emptied out his bench and Marcus Thornton hit a three in the closing seconds.

From the time Marcin Gortat collected the rebound with 3:33 left in the game until the 1:46 mark of overtime when Brooks took Wall and Gortat out of the game, the Wizards were outscored by 18. Marc Gasol hit 3 three-pointers during that stretch which is demoralizing, but not nearly as bad as the fact that the Wizards went 1-11 during that same time, with Wall & Beal combining to go 1-9 with 0 assists.

The whole point of having a dynamic backcourt with two guards who can shoot, drive to the lane, and distribute is that it’s supposed to make the offense less predictable and harder to guard, especially in the closing minutes of tight games. Instead, they became incredibly predictable and easy for the Grizzlies to shut down as they mounted their big comeback.

The Wizards were on the wrong side of some unlucky plays and a Marc Gasol hot streak at the end of Sunday’s game. Things won’t always go as badly as they did here. However, if Washington can’t figure out how to be more effective in late-game situations, they’re going to continue to put themselves in positions where they can give games away that they’re more than capable of winning.