Down 2-0 with the season in the balance, Game 3 would seem like the time for Scott Brooks to pull every last strategic trick in his bag in order to get the Wizards back into their series with Toronto. Washington’s coach has a problem, though.
He has no meaningful moves left to make.
Where Dwane Casey is perched above an untouched complement of chess pieces, Brooks is down to a single bishop — a one-track simpleton that’s nice to have on hand until it’s all you’ve got to play with.
Brooks has been demonstrably out-coached by his counterpart in this series. The five-minute spurts of John Wall, Bradley Beal and Otto Porter-less lineups haven’t burned him yet — Toronto’s bench contributions have been more random and loud than mechanically predictable — but they’re just a few ticks away from nuking Washington’s second quarters at all times. Porter, he of the elite three-point shooting, has attempted three triples through two games; the Wiz as a whole are being out-attempted from deep 65-43 while Wall persists in launching mid-range shots despite bricking them all year long. Brooks hasn’t laid out a sparkling game plan.
What you can’t blame Brooks for, though, is the lack of options he has available at this critical juncture of the series. Wizards GM Ernie Grunfeld’s roster is samey and not at all malleable. Contrasted with the Raptors seven-deep bench of guys with varied skills, Washington’s reserves resemble faxed and crinkled copies of the starters. Ian Mahinmi is Marcin Gortat with more money and fewer tensile knee ligaments. Porter is a series of intermittent on-court naps better than Kelly Oubre Jr. Mike Scott is a less-skilled, yet somehow more consistent edition of Markieff Morris. Combine Bradley Beal with John Wall and the gaseous cloud of chemical reaction leftovers looks something like Tomas Satoransky. Toronto can play super-big, extremely small or somewhere in between. Casey can toggle the number of shooters, ball-handlers or defenders he has on the court with ease. Brooks is limited by his roster’s rigidity. His next moves are going to be extreme ‘cause they’ll have to be.
If there’s one landscape-altering tweak Brooks can make, it probably involves Mike Scott. Yes, he has T.J. Miller movie tattooed on himself. It also happens that he’s been damned good for Washington as a back-up five through two games.
“Who knows, he might be a starting five,” said Scott Brooks after Game 2, potentially hinting at what would be his most drastic adjustment of the series.
Scott’s greatest attribute in the context of this series might be that he’s not Gortat. Gortat — built up as a mythical Jonas Valanciunas foil in the series lead-up — has been slow, ineffective and entirely unable to negotiate the space in between Toronto’s trigger-happy guards and rolling, sure-handed bigs.
Scott is more spry, and has earned some trust with a 14-of-20 shooting line in the series.
“Every time I’m in the game and he’s in the game I definitely try to run my pick-and-rolls with him,” said John Wall of how Scott has transformed the floor for the Wizards while soaking up most of Gortat’s vacated minutes. “Teams like to switch, I can throw it to him in the post. If they don’t switch and leave it to him he definitely can make shots. But he also can find people at the same time.”
Scott’s presence has been one of the only bright spots for the Wizards through two games. His +14.0 on-court NET Rating over 54 minutes of court time is tops on the team, non-Supernova Ty Lawson division. In the 42 minutes he’s sat, Washington’s posted a heinous 97.4 / 138.8 / -41.3 efficiency slash line.
There’s been a critical soft-spot for Scott, though, revealed when paired with Markieff Morris in an uber-small, rim protection-free front court. Toronto’s been mostly nonplussed by that look from Washington, contently sticking with Jonas Valanciunas and Serge Ibaka in hopes of rebounding it straight off the floor. Over 24 minutes as Washington’s front-court pairing in the series, Scott and Morris have a 94.4 Offensive Rating, a -9.1 NET Rating and a stinky 43.5 rebound percentage. The space they theoretically breath into to the offense hasn’t translated into nearly enough scoring punch to justify getting whooped on the glass. And while it’s a teensy sample, it’s actually an improvement on their regular season numbers: 103.2 / 119.6 / -16.4 with just 41.6 percent of available boards snagged. In the event the pair starts bombing threes and runs Valanciunas off the court, Ibaka-at-centre is more than enough size, rim protection and mobility to nullify Scott, regardless of who Casey opts to stick at the four, be it Pascal Siakam, C.J. Miles or even OG Anunoby.
Because Gortat and Mahinmi stink, Brooks has dabbled in playing just one of Scott or Morris with a complement of wings surrounding them. We now go to a live look at Toronto’s reaction to that ploy by Brooks.
Washington tested out the one-big look in the fourth quarter of Game 2. For four-ish minutes with Scott as the anchor, it worked. Lucas Nogueira was more spaced out than the Wizards’ offense, and Lorenzo Brown’s stint as a premature victory cigar went about as poorly as you’d expect. For a moment, it looked like a gut-punch Wizards comeback was in play. But as Washington pulled within five, Casey busted out his hammer lineup: Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Delon Wright, Miles and Ibaka. They went on a 19-4, game-sealing run in short order, and highlighted the flaw in Washington’s non-traditional looks in this series.
Because of its depth, the Raptors are always going to have a counter to which ever quirky five-man group Brooks throws out there. For Washington to get weird, the have to turn to players who are nice but not nice enough. Scott is always going to get out-talented — or simply out-sized — by the opposing centre, be it Ibaka or Valanciunas.
If there’s some hope for Washington when they kick aside the concept of traditional centres, it’s in the defensive potential of their multi-wing units — particularly the Wall-Beal-Oubre-Porter look that sported a 97.7 regular season Defensive Rating in 343 minutes of shared floor time (with a +15.0 NET Rating overall). In theory, that foursome can switch across the board, especially if the Raptors are going to go four-out around Ibaka or Valanciunas themselves. A simple remedy to having zero rim protection is to prevent penetration, with switching being the most tried and true method to wall off would-be drives.
One, Brooks has hardly bothered to play that proven four-man group, sending them out for just three of the series’ 96 minutes so far. Beyond that, each of the four guys in question have taken turns getting badly hung up on screens...
... getting confused in transition ...
... or, uhm, doing this:
Washington softened its trapping scheme against DeRozan after getting picked apart for 16 threes — most of which off the steady hands of secondary Raptors — in Game 1. By primarily going under on DeRozan in the pick-and-roll, the game plan seemed to be limit the number of 4-on-3 situations for Toronto to exploit.
“Our adjustment was to not give them threes,” said Brooks after the game. “and we have to do a better job of committing to it.”
As you can see from the second clip above, perimeter breakdowns are death when one of Morris or Scott is the last line of defense near the rim. DeRozan dropped 37 points for a lot of reasons, the biggest being Washington’s inability to execute a straight-forward under-the-screen approach to defending him.
Hamstrung by his roster and with a collection of perimeter guys not defending anywhere close to their ceilings on that end, Brooks’ options going forward are few and imperfect. It’s reductive as hell, but if Washington’s best players don’t play better and Toronto’s don’t play worse, no strategic maneuver is going to swing the trajectory of a series that has a distinctly sweepy vibe through two games.
Brooks can try to add some zip to the offense by leaning more heavily on Scott or Morris, but Casey’s embarrassment of depth will still leave him playing slow-motion whack-a-mole with two hammers.
One inspired performance at home court change the tenor of the series. But for Brooks and the Wizards. check mate isn’t far off.