Even as the 2012-13 NBA season draws to a close, there will be no time for breaks for the Miami Heat or Washington Wizards, as they will both be playing the second night of a back-to-back at the Verizon Center on Wednesday.
In the overarching scheme of the season, both teams' first game of their back-to-backs went like their seasons at large.
Despite being without Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, the Heat continued their brilliant play at home. Led by a 28-point, seven-rebound, seven-assist performance from LeBron James, Miami took care of business and defeated the Milwaukee Bucks 94-83. The victory over their likely first-round opponent puts the Heat's magic number for clinching home-court advantage throughout the NBA playoffs at one.
A win Wednesday night or a San Antonio Spurs loss later that evening will lock up the whole shebang, and thus any reason for Wade, Bosh and James to suit up. The trio have already been taking their sweet time off down the stretch, leaving who exactly will be in the lineup for Miami against Washington very much up in the air.
The Wizards, meanwhile, again put on their show of John Wall and the Whoever Elses in a loss to the surging Knicks on Tuesday. Wall put together another 30-plus-point effort but watched as Carmelo Anthony passed him up on an individual level, and New York pulled away for a 120-99 victory.
That drubbing was par for the course for Washington, now just 7-32 on the road this season. But with Miami likely sitting at least two of the Big Three and the Wizards traveling back home, Wall may just be able to lead his team to victory.
With that in mind, here is a complete breakdown of everything you need to know about Wednesday night's clash.
Start Time: Wednesday, April 10, at 7 p.m. ET
Location: Verizon Center in Washington, D.C.
Team Records: Miami Heat (61-16), Washington Wizards (29-49)
TV Info: CSNB
Stream: NBA League Pass (Pay Service)
Heat Injury Report (via CBS Sports)
F Chris Bosh, Knee/Illness, Doubtful
G Dwyane Wade, Ankle, Questionable
Wizards Injury Report (via CBS Sports)
G/F Trevor Ariza, Knee, Out
G Bradley Beal, Ankle, Out
Key Storyline: Which Members of the Miami Big Three Will Suit Up?
Miami (like Washington) heads into Wednesday night's matchup on the second night of a back-to-back—the NBA's version of late-season torture. At this juncture in the season, everyone is tired, every last crevice in the body ground down to the bone by a 70-plus-game schedule (thus far).
Unless a team is jockeying for playoff position—in which case, their postseason may have well already begun—then plenty of "hurt" players sit out the second half of these contests. A quick look at the leaguewide injury report shows seemingly half of the league is on there with some ailment, mainly to give a convenient excuse for a sudden absence against the Charlottes of the world.
That's certainly the case with Miami. The Heat, once Chicago put their 27-game winning streak in a vacant, have been very public about their plans to rest stars down the stretch. Though not all three of the Heat's superstars have missed a game together, Erik Spoelstra has been taking every advantage of his team's comfortable place atop the NBA.
On Tuesday, it was Wade and Bosh's turn to sit out. James ascended without his two All-Star amigos, but he's made it very clear that sitting out will be a regular thing for him in the near future.
"It's reacted well the last few days and that's the good thing," James said (via Charles F. Gardner of the Journal Sentinel). "Am I hoping to play these last six? No, I don't plan on playing these last six, no."
No word is out on whether James will ultimately be in the lineup, but odds are it's a less than 50 percent proposition. It makes little sense to push the likely league MVP into a back-to-back situation with home-court throughout the playoffs essentially on lock, especially against a Wizards team that has been frisky of late.
Wade has also admitted his absence may last until the postseason, and Bosh is listed as doubtful on the injury report. The most underrated of Miami's Big Three, Bosh had been the healthiest, but a recent illness mucks up his standings.
It's possible fans at the Verizon Center will get to see one Heat superstar on Wednesday. Which one is as predictable as the spin of a roulette wheel.
X-Factor: Heat Backdoor Cuts
Perhaps the most underrated facet of Washington's second-half ascent has been its defense. The Wizards are tied with Boston for the fifth-best defensive efficiency in the league, giving up 100 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com.
There aren't many ebbs in the team's defensive structure. Washington is a top-half defense against all but two of Synergy's play measurements and actually ranks third overall in points per possession. Randy Wittman has done a fantastic job of integrating Emeka Okafor and Nene together down low, and nearly every Wizards perimeter player buys into the system and zone implementation.
The one facet of the game where Washington struggles somewhat defensively is against cuts. They tend to get a bit lackadaisical on communication, especially on the perimeter. Wall isn't a plus defender and may never become one, and he's arguably the Wizards player most vulnerable to be beaten backdoor. Having Nene and Okafor both on the floor with their slow feet doesn't help matters much in those cases, either.
The Celtics are one of the league's best cutting teams—fourth in points per possession, per Synergy Sports (subscription required)—and torched Washington on those plays on Sunday. This is just basic, smart action here from Avery Bradley, as Wall turns his back to the area he's supposed to be covering, and Kevin Garnett throws an easy entry pass for the hoop.
That play fully rests at Wall's feet, but the Wizards do a poor job communicating as well. Wall gets beat again here by Bradley, but watch him express frustration at Nene for not letting him know the Celtics guard had shifted over to the corner.
Zone has been a facet of Washington's defensive strategy all season, but it breaks down extremely quick at the slightest sign of miscommunication. And with Miami being the league's best cutting team by far, per Synergy Sports, that could become critical in Wednesday's matchup.
Particularly when LeBron is in the game, the Heat are fantastic at off-the-ball movement. It's poetry in motion when James takes an entry pass into the post and a help defender comes and doubles...only for LeBron to find the cutter moving through the lane or a corner three from the secondary help. Though it's just one of many ways the Heat's offense excels, James' post passing has been one of his biggest evolutions since arriving in Miami.
But even without James, the Heat have found ways to create opportunities inside. They've been particularly adept at running multiple off-the-ball screens for big men down low while the guards at the top of the key run misdirection—another one of Miami's biggest strong suits—by aimlessly moving the ball around.
Assuming they will be without James, offensive production will certainly crater. Creating easy baskets on cuts is just one way it won't do so as much as expected.
Key Matchup: John Wall vs. Miami Mid-Range Defense
As you may have heard once or 625 times, John Wall has had himself quite the post-All-Star break ascent. After understandably being slow to return to form in the months of January and February—Wall was particularly dreadful in the latter month—he's become one of the league's hottest players in March and April.
Since March 1, Wall has put himself in line for the max contract he thinks he deserves. The third-year guard is averaging 22.7 points, 7.9 assists and 4.9 rebounds per game, including three efforts of 35 points or more. Also improving his efficiency, Wall has shot 48 percent from the field during this period—nearly a six-point leap from his 42.3 percent career average.
What's been most interesting about Wall is how he's accumulating those points. A dreadful jump-shooter throughout most of his career thus far—Wall shot an atrocious 16.3 percent on jumpers last season, per NBA.com—Wall has shown major improvements in that area over the past month, particularly in the mid-range.
Grantland's Kirk Goldsberry did a fantastic breakdown on Wall's improvement last week and noted a fact some astute Wizards observers had noticed for a while now: Wall loves the right elbow. Like...Ben Wyatt-Leslie Knope loves.
According to NBA.com, Wall is shooting 53.06 percent from the right elbow area since March 1. It's his most-used area on the floor by more than double any other area and has been at the heart of Wall's ascent. (He's shooting just under 53 percent from that area for the season, but over half of his attempts have come since the beginning of March.)
It's a universal truth that mid-range jumpers are the worst shot in basketball, but that's not the case for Wall. As Goldsberry notes, point guards are inherently more likely to take mid-range jumpers than any other position. Especially in pick-and-roll sets where the undercutting guard is slow to get back, that elbow jumper is key to creating spacing and passing opportunities to the cutting big man later on.
Wall has no conscience on how he gets to the right elbow, either. Watch here as he resets the offense after a broken transition opportunity, uses Kevin Seraphin's pick and knows exactly when and where he's pulling up.
He's also become an expert at pulling up in semi-transition. This isn't a good shot for Wall or any other shooter for the most part—the Wizards don't have numbers or rebounders in position—but his confidence from that spot makes it nearly a sure thing. It's a question of comfort, and Wall is brimming with it at the right elbow, even in isolation-type situations.
The latter point may be the more salient against Miami. Even without Wade and James, the Heat are a very good team at bottling up pick-and-roll ball-handlers. They rank second in the league at 0.71 points per possession against those ball-handlers, per Synergy Sports. That's due in part to the team's smart rotations and the effort of big men, things that won't necessarily crater without James and Wade—though, of course, they do have an expected and natural regression.
Where Miami struggles is in isolation sets. The Heat are the NBA's worst team against isolation, allowing 0.89 points per possession, according to Synergy Sports. Strangely enough, Miami has also been wretched this season on the right elbow, where opponents are shooting 46.7 percent.
The Wizards already have a major chance in this game. If Wall's shot is on from his best spot on the floor, the Washington star may well shine bright against the defending champs on Wednesday. At the very least, all signs point to him having a very good opportunity to do so.
Projected Starters (Regular Starters in Parenthesis)
PG: Mario Chalmers
SG: Mike Miller (Dwyane Wade)
SF: Rashard Lewis (LeBron James)
PF: Shane Battier (Udonis Haslem)
C: Udonis Haslem (Chris Bosh)
PG: John Wall
SG: Garrett Temple
SF: Martell Webster
C: Emeka Okafor
It's hard to make an accurate prediction without knowing exactly who will be in the lineup, so we're just going to go with our best guess for Miami and say all three sit. It's very possible that Wade will surprise everyone and suit up or that James will want to try his hand at a back-to-back, but this seems like a golden phone-it-in opportunity.
This Wizards team would probably give even a full-strength Heat a run for their money at home. Washington has been transformed since Wall came back to the lineup from a left-for-dead contender for the top overall pick to a squad that's playoff-worthy in the Eastern Conference.
The Wizards' start was too wretched for that to happen, but they remain one of the best "spoiler" teams in the league. They aren't folding over their last couple of weeks; they're trying to build for a playoff berth in 2013-14.
It's tough to discount even a depleted Miami team from making this close, but the Wizards should be able to pull this game out.
Secondary prediction: John Wall goes for 35-plus points.
Score Prediction: Wizards 97, Heat 91