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Wizards solve big problems with small lineups

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NBA: Washington Wizards at Portland Trail Blazers Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

Wizards head coach Scott Brooks has dealt with the peaks and the valleys since taking over as Washington’s head coach in 2016. For every storm, there’s a ray of sunshine to balance it out, like the Wizards’ 125-124 overtime win over the Blazers after their crushing loss to the Raptors on Saturday.

Dwight Howard’s injury, together with Ian Mahinmi’s foul issues and back spasms, forced Scott Brooks to play small most of the game, utilizing Markieff Morris and Jeff Green at center, and using Kelly Oubre to fill the void on the perimeter. Although the team was outrebounded by 16, they shot and defended well enough to offset the difference.

Markieff Morris’ odd night illustrated how Washington lost some battles but won the war. He was helpless on the glass, only grabbing 9 rebounds while Jusuf Nurkic gobbled up 18 and Al-Farouq Aminu snagged 15, but every time the Blazers tried to hide them defensively, Morris popped out to the 3-point line and made them pay.

“We just did a great job of just feeding the hot hand,” Morris said after scoring a team-best 28 points on 9-of-15 shooting from the floor.

Brooks hinted at experimenting with small lineups during the first week of the NBA preseason, following the league-wide trend of going smaller to put more playmaking and speed on the floor to keep up with the early jump in scoring this season. After the game, he made it clear that he plans to use the small-ball lineup more often moving forward.

“We’re definitely gonna play it for long stretches, “ he said. “The way the league is going, if you don’t score 120 points, you have no chance to win. You gotta score in this league now.”

That isn’t hyperbole. The Blazers are averaging 124.3 points per game this season, one of five teams currently over the 120 per game mark. Five more are within two points of it.

Brooks has preached upping the pace and shooting more threes since the start of training camp, and on Monday, we finally saw how it can work.

Morris was the big benefactor on Monday, but Otto Porter Jr. and Kelly Oubre Jr benefited from the lineup as well. Porter didn’t have a great shooting night, but he was the most aggressive we’ve seen him all season attacking the paint and not passing up shots, thanks to all the extra space he had to operate.

Oubre Jr. put together his best overall game as a Wizard. He hustled up and down the floor, jumped for defensive rebounds, and knocked down all three of his 3-point attempts.

The lineup of Wall, Beal, Oubre, Porter, and Morris had an offensive rating of 114.6, despite going 7-of-12 at the free throw line.

Beal, who scored 25 on the night, said the small-ball lineup just makes sense. “I don’t want to say chemistry, because we have chemistry with Ian, too,” Beal said about why the group played well together. “But I think just the concept in the way we play is totally different. The plays we call are totally different and I think when we’re small, we’re positionless.

“It confuses the defense,” Beal continued. “It’s kind of a little bit difficult when you have your normal lineup and the teams play their regular concepts.”

It was a moment of optimism for Brooks after a dark start to the season. For at least one night, he showed that the Wizards’ new approach of cutting out mid-range shots and embracing pace and space can work, even when they’re undermanned. Washington has gone from the fourth-most mid-range attempts in the league last season to 16th so far this season.

The big test comes Wednesday with the Warriors up next on the schedule. We’ll see how Washington holds up against the team that plays small better than anyone.