Anyone who has watched the NBA this year knows that the Eastern Conference playoffs aren't going to be nearly as interesting as the Western Conference’s.
Right now, a team that is eight games under .500 is slated to make the playoffs in the East (Atlanta Hawks). But that doesn't make these playoffs any less significant for the Washington Wizards and their fans.
The Washington faithful have been waiting for five years for some playoff action, and they’re finally going to get it. However, there is some concern over the level of basketball that they’ll be seeing.
Washington was torn apart by the Chicago Bulls on Saturday, 96-78 (the game was more of a blowout than the score would indicate), and the Wizards let J.R. Smith drop 32 on them the game before that against the New York Knicks.
But heading into the postseason, the Wizards have a solid mix of veteran leadership and young talent. Drew Gooden, Andre Miller, Al Harrington, Marcin Gortat and Nene are big names in the locker room that will be valuable in series-altering playoff games. But John Wall and Bradley Beal make up a young backcourt that is one of the best in the league currently.
Although the Raptors are a relatively inexperienced team, the Wizards will need the best out of all of their players if they want to get a playoff series win for the first time since 2005—and these three players specifically will need to improve their game to get the Wizards out of the first round.
If the last four games are any indications, the Wizards shouldn’t be all that worried about Beal’s performance heading into the playoffs. He has scored 20 or more points in two of his last four games, and he only missed one of his eight shots against the Boston Celtics on the night the Wizards clinched a playoff spot.
Still, four games don’t tell the whole story of Beal’s second half of the season. Since the All-Star break, Beal had struggled heading into the last four-game stretch.
In more minutes, Beal’s three-point percentage dropped by almost seven percentage points following the break—during which he competed (and almost won) the three-point contest and played in the Rising Stars Challenge.
Beal also is coming off arguably his worst month of the season. Beal played in 16 games in March but shot just 39.5 percent, and he was taking far more shots than he needed to, attempting 16 per game compared to 14.9 in January, according to ESPN.
The three-point percentage has been the biggest surprise, given how well he was shooting it from behind the arc prior to the break. In an interview with me during the break, Beal said he had been working on his three-point shot:
You always have to work on that shot. Your game is never perfect. I would think my comfort level of shooting out there is a lot better. I think last year I was really adjusting to the line out there. People don't realize how far it is from the hoop.
But twice in March, Beal scored under 10 points in a game, and he made one or no three-pointers in five games.
Again, his performance so far in April has made fans forget about his struggles in March, but the Wizards can’t afford for Beal to have games where he is going 2-for-13 or 7-for-23 in the playoffs. He is the Wizards’ second-best offensive option behind Wall, and he will be playing probably the same number of minutes as Wall, the team’s star.
You’re probably wondering, “How can a guy who hasn’t played since February need to step up his game?”
In short, the Wizards need Nene to step up immediately because of how much better they are with him in the lineup.
It looks like the veteran power forward will be returning to the lineup on Wednesday, but Washington can’t afford any setbacks with Nene, and they need him in pre-injury form if they want to win a playoff series.
In a chart compiled by Drew Garrison of SB Nation, Washington’s lineup this year of Trevor Ariza, Gortat, Nene, Wall and Martell Webster was actually the fifth-best rotation in the league all season with a plus/minus of 10.4. However, that lineup has played just 254 minutes together all year.
Come playoff time, it will most likely be Beal in there instead of Webster, but it just shows how important Nene is to this team, and according to Garrison, that same lineup with Beal is the sixth-best in the league.
Writing on the rotation with Webster in it, Garrison wrote:
The top of the Wizards' roster is playing very well together, but the bench woes have been an issue through the season and won't be changing before they hit the postseason.
Prior to his injury in February, Nene had played in 11 games that month, averaging 16 points, 5.8 rebounds, just under a block and 1.2 steals, according to ESPN. The Wizards need him, but Nene needs his health and needs to find his midseason form quickly with just five games left in the season.
Gooden got out to a great start in Washington. He had found his niche off the bench and was putting up big numbers in tough positions for the Wizards.
But in the last three games, Gooden’s numbers have really dropped off. He is averaging just over three points and 3.7 rebounds compared to 10.3 points and six rebounds in his first 16 games with Washington, according to ESPN.
|Drew Gooden First 16 Games in Washington vs. Last 3|
|First 16 games||18.9||10.3||6||56.2|
All season, the Wizards have struggled with their bench production. Their starting five can match up with some of the best in the league, but on the year, the bench is second-to-last in points per game and is 25th in rebounds, according to HoopStats.com.
Gooden can play both center and power forward and will be the seventh man on the roster behind Webster.
Washington also needs Gooden in the fourth quarters of games to close out opponents, something they have struggled with all season. In the fourth quarter this season, Gooden is making 61.1 percent of his shots, according to Basketball-Reference.
In wins this year, Gooden has made about six percent more of his shots than in Washington losses. Plus, he has played in 44 career playoff games and brings more overall NBA experience by far than Trevor Booker and Kevin Seraphin—the other big men off the bench.
If Washington can get healthy at the right time—and it looks like they’re going to—it can be a contender to take down whoever the No. 3 seed ends up being, especially if Beal, Gooden and Nene all have solid games.