The Wizards don’t have a proven superstar or an established go-to guy who they can get the ball to in the final seconds, get out of the way and let him operate.
The clutch-by-committee philosophy certainly served as a disadvantage early on, as they racked up close defeats. And that certainly isn’t the preferred situation for contending teams that can simply draw something up for Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony or even Joe Johnson and live with the results.
But Coach Randy Wittman doesn’t go into late-game possessions determined to set up one individual, relying mostly on his gut while seeking to exploit mismatches on the floor. The hero emerges within the flow of the game, rather than from reputation.
Wittman has managed to make it work in recent weeks, with the team winning 13 of 22 and calling on everyone from Bradley Beal, to Nene, to John Wall, to even the recently-dealt Jordan Crawford, to make a play with the game on the line.
“I coach by feel. I don’t have a set play we will go to every time,” Wittman said after the Wizards (17-37) beat the Houston Rockets, 105-103, at Verizon Center and improved to 3-2 in games decided by three points or fewer since Jan. 7.
On Saturday, the Wizards went to Emeka Okafor on the decisive possession against the Rockets. Not necessarily because Okafor had been rolling offensively and Wittman wanted to ride the hot hand. No, Wittman simply wanted to go to the biggest body, between Okafor and Nene, and pound the ball inside with the Rockets going small.
With 21.4 seconds remaining and the game tied at 103, Beal tossed ball into the backcourt to Wall, giving him the chance to survey the floor and see that Rockets center Omer Asik was matched up with forward Carlos Delfino. Wall then called up the play for Okafor in the post, handing the ball off to Okafor on the left side of the basket.
“Mek was so excited to get the ball, he didn’t set the pick,” Beal said with a laugh. “We went to the block and just spaced out and if they doubled he would kick it to the guy who was open.”
Okafor didn’t wait for the double, as he quickly spun around Delfino and lunged into Asik to draw the foul.
“We’re versatile. The five of us on the court, everybody can score, from every single position and we all have confidence in each other and know when we can exploit matchups. That just shows confidence,” Okafor said. “This team is pretty unique where you legitimately have guys at every position who can put the ball in the bucket. So at the end of the game Coach drew up a play and said hey, ‘Whoever the mismatch is on is who we’re going to.’ It wasn’t for me or Nene, it’s whoever Delfino was guarding.”
Okafor made the first free throw, then missed the second, but Beal soared for the offensive rebound and let the clock tick away until he got fouled with 1.9 seconds remaining, critical time with the Rockets not having any timeouts.
This season, Wall has been the most reliable player in so-called clutch situations – the last 30 seconds of the fourth quarter or overtime with the score differential of three points or less – going 2 for 4 from the field. He also hit two free throws to clinch a win in Denver.
“I’m basically the only one that will penetrate. We get them moving a little bit, they double the post, and we swing it to find the easiest outlet,” Wall said, explaining the Wizards’ philosophy late in games. “We catch them off guard, they usually think I’m getting the ball or Brad is getting the ball, but we can go to the low post, and those guys can finish or they can make free throws. It makes it tough.”
Beal has gone 2 for 6 from the field and 5 for 8 from the foul line in those situations, knocking down the game-tying shot against Brooklyn and a game-winning shot against Oklahoma City.
Kevin Seraphin has also performed well in those situations this season, going 2 for 3. Seraphin would’ve had the game-winner against Atlanta on Nov. 21 if the Wizards had done a better job of contesting Kyle Korver in a 101-100 shot. Crawford made a game-winner against Portland but missed his other seven shots in clutch situations.
Okafor got his turn to go to work in the final seconds against Houston and didn’t make a basket, but his free throw and his well-placed long miss set up the Wizards to claim their sixth straight win against a team with a winning record.
“With our team, it’s like equal scoring all the time,” Beal said. “So I mean, we really don’t have that one superstar to say, ‘Okay. Go score.’ Guys are capable but the way we play and the way our team is designed, we want to make a team try to guard us. It’s easy to guard a guy one-on-one. You always got help everywhere. If you run a play, it just creates more [confusion] for the other team.”