The Washington Wizards are a rare team in today's NBA. Coach Randy Wittman deploys an old-school pair of lane-clogging big men in his starting line-up, foregoing the type of shooting big that has become so valuable in the league in recent years. Additionally, Washington's oft-criticized bench boss encourages his players to shoot the dreaded mid-range jumper instead of launching shots from beyond the three-point line.
But what's surprising about this strategy from the 90s is that the Wizards have made it work.
Of course, the stagnancy of the Washington's offense is well documented. Wittman's archaic thinking yielded the second-worst offense of the sixteen playoff teams (101.8 ORtg), and the 6th-worst offense in the NBA after the All-Star break (98.6 ORtg). However, while Wittman's out-dated line-up choices have stymied his team's offensive potential, they have facilitated the emergence of one of the league's best defensive squads - fifth-best to be exact, with a Defensive Rating of exactly 100.0.
As we saw in game one, Washington's big men do a fantastic job of sealing off the paint. On the year, the Wizards allowed 24.4 shot attempts inside the restricted area per game - tied for the 2nd-lowest total in the league. Against a team like the Raptors, which relies heavily upon DeMar DeRozan and Lou Williams to attack the rim and create free-throw opportunities, such imposing interior defense can severely cut into those chances to put up easy points. Toronto got to the line just 14 times in game one.
There is a weakness in Washington's defensive structure though - one that is a by-product of the pace-and-space style of play that Wittman seems opposed to embracing. Stretch-fours can give the Wizards all kinds of problems.
Washington's big men (Gortat, Nene, Drew Gooden and Kevin Seraphin), while stalwarts close to the basket, lack the mobility to defend their assignments if they drift out to the three point line. And it has been proven this season that a high volume of three-point shots can pick apart the Wizards defense.
In the regular season, Washington gave up 10 or more three pointers 23 times. Its record in those games was 7-16. Another damning indictment of the Wizards' vulnerability to the long ball: a 6-19 record against teams ranked in the top-10 in attempted three-pointers.
Because of their stay-at-home big men and proven susceptibility to the three-ball, Patrick Patterson's importance in the remainder of this series is painstakingly obvious.
Although he struggled mightily from beyond the arc in the latter months of the season, Patterson is a three-point threat that defenses have to account for. Unfortunately for Washington, consistently getting a man in Patterson's face when he's on the perimeter will be a constant challenge in the coming games. Here are the screen-shots from Patterson's two made threes in Game 1:
In both of those instances, Patterson found himself unmanned on the perimeter, as Gooden (perhaps the most mobile of Washington's regular big men), demonstrated his reluctance to leave the paint on defense, and seemed content to give up those open looks. Patterson went 2-5 from three on Saturday. If he's going to be granted those unchallenged shots, and make them at that rate for the rest of the series, the Raptors should be very excited.
That probably won't happen though. It seems unlikely that Wittman will continue to allow Patterson to launch uncontested long-balls if he shows he's capable of making them regularly. To combat the threat of the Raptors' versatile big man, Wittman may be forced to address one vulnerability at the expense of opening up other areas for the Raptors to exploit.
Coming into the series, Wizards fans had been calling for Paul Pierce to play at the four in order to address the disastrous spacing that has dogged the team all year. In the second quarter on Saturday, Wittman obliged, and Pierce torched the Raptors for 10 points on 4-4 shooting and 2-2 from deep. It was a move that worked beautifully for a short stretch in the second frame - largely because the man guarding Pierce was Tyler Hansbrough, a man whose defensive immobility is rivaled only by Washington's stable of bigs.
However, if Patterson can continue making threes, Wittman may have no choice but to deploy Pierce at the power forward spot for more than a few brief stretches throughout the game. In order to challenge Patterson at the three-point line, Pierce may have to replace one of Nene or Gortat whenever Patterson hits the court, a move that would create much more space in the lane for Toronto's rim-attacking guards.
Pierce being forced to defend Patterson at the four would also limit the potential for another offensive explosion from the Wizards' veteran; Patterson is a far more mobile and athletic defender than Hansbrough, thus we probably wouldn't see Pierce have a perfect (and entirely uncontested) quarter again.
Due to the problems that a shot-sinking Patterson can create for the old-school Wizards defense, Dwane Casey would be wise to play him as much as possible - and possibly even start him.
By inserting Patterson into the starting unit, and shifting Amir Johnson to the bench, Patterson would be given the opportunity to exploit Washington's vulnerability to spacing early on, and force Wittman to make an adjustment.
Casey's inability to react quickly when Pierce was torching the Raptors from the four spot may have cost the Raptors Game 1. But starting Patterson could be the coaching tactic he rides en route to a crucial Game 2 win.
(Screen Shots Courtesy AllNBAHighlights on Youtube)