Thursday night's game between the Washington Wizards and Portland Trail Blazers was a contest between two teams in similar positions in their respective conferences. Both teams are all but assured of making the playoffs, but have fallen behind in the race to secure home-court advantage in the first round.
Of course, the highlight of this game was the marquee matchup of Washington's John Wall and Portland's Damian Lillard, perhaps the two most dynamic young point guards in the game. Both players lived up to their billing, at least on the stat sheet. Lillard scored 23 points, dished out 10 assists and grabbed six rebounds, while Wall posted 24 points, 14 assists and two boards.
But the Eastern Conference Wizards have learned a valuable lesson while visiting the West Coast: There's no comparing the league's two conferences. They headed west following a stirring March 15 victory over the Brooklyn Nets, their 10th win in their last 14 games.
But that guaranteed them nothing.
Washington's 116-103 loss to the Blazers—though not nearly as embarrassing as Tuesday's defeat at the hand of an already-eliminated Sacramento Kings—was yet another reminder that this is not a team built to compete in the Wild West.
The struggling Blazers didn't even need leading scorer LaMarcus Aldridge—still on the shelf with a back injury—to dispatch Washington. Small forward Nicolas Batum continued his sterling all-around play of late, with 12 points, 14 rebounds and five assists. Reserve big man Dorell Wright stepped into Aldridge's starting spot and chipped in 15 points and seven rebounds of his own. And shooting guard Wesley Matthews led all scorers with 28 points.
The Wizards simply could not match that kind of firepower. Sure, they have quality players like Trevor Ariza (15 points), and a budding young star in Bradley Beal (18 points, on subpar 6-of-18 shooting). But even the astonishing renaissance of veteran Drew Gooden (18 points) could not help overcome the Blazers.
So the outcome of this might raise the question, does a win for Lillard's team mean he is the better player? Absolutely not. If anything, the result of Thursday's game obscures the fact that Wall is in the midst of an astonishing run of play, and that he is on the verge of claiming the title of league's best point guard.
The Difference Between Lillard and Wall
John Wall and Damian Lillard have a lot in common. Both are 23 years old—born a little less than two months apart. Both were lottery picks: Wall at No. 1 overall in 2010 and Lillard at No. 6 overall in 2012. Both are athletic freaks who demonstrated their hops in the 2014 Slam Dunk Contest (won by Wall). And both made their first All-Star team in February.
Most importantly, Lillard and Wall both have a noted flaw in their game, one clear obstacle between each player and elite status.
For Lillard, that flaw is his defense. He can shoot the three, take his man off the dribble and run an elite offense. In fact, Lillard might be the most important cog in a Portland scoring attack that ranks first in the NBA in points per 100 possessions.
But the Blazers also rank a paltry 19th in defensive efficiency, despite what appears to be an above-average defensive frontcourt of Aldridge, Batum and Robin Lopez. And Lillard is a big reason for that. He has yet to translate his top-shelf athleticism into elite defense. This has often forced the Blazers to switch Batum onto opposing point guards as SB Nation's Dane Carbaugh explained in February:
Of course, a lot of this has to do with Lillard’s deficiencies on defense. His inability to fight over screens and his issues staying in front of ball-handlers — particularly by overplaying the dominant hand and biting on the first dribble move — has made him the weakest link on defense for Portland starters.
This forces Batum on to many opposing point guards by default, and unless the Blazers can improve the young guard’s defensive habits, we should continue to see Nicolas Batum guarding the ball-handler earlier in games.
As for Wall, his weakness was his shaky jumper. While he may just be the fastest player in the league with the ball in his hands and capable of getting by nearly any defender, Wall's poor jump shot allows opposing defenses to play off him. Until this season, he certainly couldn't make shots from beyond the arc, as he shot an embarrassing 24.3 percent on three-pointers during his first three years in the league.
But that might be changing.
Thursday's game was an auspicious moment in Wall's career—with his 5-for-10 performance from distance, he improved his three-point shooting percentage on the season to 36.4 percent. With this season's league average hovering around 36.0 percent, this marks the first time in Wall's career that he's shown to be at least an average three-point shooter.
In fact, Wall has shot the three significantly better than Lillard since the All-Star Break:
|John Wall 3P%||Damian Lillard 3P%|
|Before All-Star Break||32.1% (52 games)||40.4% (53 games)|
|After All-Star Break||47.9% (16 games)||34.6% (16 games)|
This should terrify the rest of the league. Wall could already finish, distribute and defend at an All-Star level. If he can continue to shoot the three this well, he will be all but unstoppable.
Wizards coach Randy Wittman has gone out of his way to praise Wall's tenacious two-way game of late, as he did following their win against Brooklyn, per The Washington Post's Michael Lee:
John, sometimes, I think we lose sight of some of the things John does and I would be remiss to not mention the game that he had. The aggression that he played in that fourth quarter, really ignited us. I thought he played both ends of the floor as hard as he could.”
Indeed, we are seeing the improvement, and it goes beyond vague terms like "leadership." Wall has improved his game in a very real, tangible way.
While he may not have the teammates necessary to make a real impact on the playoffs, John Wall should be commended for fixing the holes in his game and carrying the Wizards to their first postseason since 2008. If the front office can surround him with more talent, Washington could become a major player in the next few years.
*Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are courtesy of Basketball-Reference.