Though the argument was built on long shots, the claim wasn’t far-fetched. Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, better known as the “Splash Brothers” were taking the 2013 NBA playoffs by storm, draining three-pointer after three-pointer to catapult the Golden State Warriors into the second round, leading then-coach Mark Jackson to call them the “greatest shooting back court in the history of the game.”
Fast forward to the current postseason. A back-court duo was all the rage again, only this time it was the Washington Wizards‘ John Wall and Bradley Beal. Like Curry and Thompson the year before, Washington’s duo turned its wealth of potential into an unexpected run to the second round, drawing praise from opposing coaches and players along the way with their tantalizing speed and mature play.
Wall and Beal don’t have a clever nickname yet, or Curry and Thompson’s shooting ability, but, according to Wall, those are the only things the Warriors’ duo have on the Wizards’ starting guards.
“I don’t think we shoot as good as the guys in Golden State, but that’s all they do better than us, I think, to be honest,” Wall said earlier this week. “We play better D, we attack the paint. I think we do everything better than them except for shooting.”
The notion led my colleague Neil Greenberg to crunch the numbers into a revealing piece that shows why Wall and Beal might not be quite at the Splash Brothers’ level on the offensive end just yet. But while stats have their place, one could argue that in this case, they may not tell the whole story.
Lost in all the talk about Wall’s game-breaking speed is how he’s harnessed his pace to make more of an impact on the defensive end. Wall has used his long arms and quickness this season to better defend pick-and-roll situations, leading to fewer open looks for opposing guards and a career-high 1.8 steals per game.
Check out the 3:38 mark of the video below for one example of Wall’s crafty defensive ability.
In their two meetings this season, Wall helped hold Curry to just 13-for-40 shooting (32.5 percent) and forced him into four turnovers per game. Granted, Wall didn’t perform much better, shooting just 33.3 percent from the field and turning the ball over 3.5 times per game.
But here’s where the irony of Wall’s comment that “I’m the only one [in the two back courts] not in that shooting category” comes in — it was Wall who lifted the Wizards to victory in their Jan. 28 meeting by hitting the game-winning three-pointer.
Wall’s improved shot helped elevate his playmaking skills, as teams had to be more careful about sagging on defense. In turn, Wall was able to use his speed to penetrate and dish 8.9 assists per game (second-best in the NBA), leading to 21.3 points created by assists per game (also second-best). By comparison, Curry averaged 8.5 assists and created 19.2 points, respectively, according to NBA.com’s Player Tracking data.
“He’s a sensational young talent. He changes their team offensively, and you really have to put most of your defensive game plan into limiting what he brings to the table,” Pacers Coach Frank Vogel said this season about Wall. “You still want to keep him out of the paint first and hope that he’s not getting hot from the perimeter.”
Teams must take a different approach when it comes to Beal. The second-year pro, who’s drawn comparisons to Miami’s Ray Allen, showed that he’s more than just a shooter by taking his pick-and-roll and penetration skills to a new level in the playoffs.
The ascent began in the final minutes of the Wizards’ overtime victory against the Bulls in Game 2 of their first-round playoff series, when Beal scored nine of his 26 points in the last five minutes of regulation to rally his team, as seen below.
Not only was Beal poised in key situations, he attacked the basket with a calculated approach, allowing him to shoot 50 percent and score 3.7 points per game on his drives into the lane during the playoffs, according to NBA.com’s Player Tracking.
Some of Beal’s defensive shortcomings surfaced in the Wizards’ games against Golden State, with Thompson scoring 26 points and six three-pointers in a Jan. 5 victory. But Thompson’s tendency to rely too heavily on the three — he averaged 6.6 per game — has hurt the Warriors at times. Meanwhile, Beal’s maturity at just 20 years old is evidenced by his sound shot selection and awareness that with Wall frequently zooming downcourt, open opportunities will come as he trails in transition and floats along the perimeter.
Beal said that following Washington’s final game against Indiana, Pacers star Paul George told him “[Beal is] going to be special one day.” Likewise, Bulls forward and defensive player of the year Joakim Noah said in the first round that Beal is “a beast, man. He’s one of the better players in our league, and to be that young and do the things that he can do, it’s very impressive.”
Following their grand performances on the playoff stage during the last two years, Washington’s Wall and Beal and Golden State’s Curry and Thompson find themselves inching toward the brink of championship contention and at the center of the debate over who is the better back court. While the stats will play a part in guiding the conversation, as Wall points out, there’s one number that both tandems will be chasing that can trump just about any argument.
“I think the biggest thing was just winning,” Wall said. “That’s all they wanted to see. If you want to be a good player or a good point guard in this league, you got to be able to find ways to win.”