Whether it’s John Wall leaping and whipping a two-hand, over-the-head pass to Bradley Beal, Trevor Ariza or Martell Webster in the corner; Nene palming the ball in the high post and finding a teammate cutting to the basket; or Beal working the give-and-go with Marcin Gortat, the Washington Wizards’ best shots are usually set up by a pass.
Aside from Wall and Beal on the perimeter and Nene in the low post, the Wizards aren’t structured to get much done by giving one man the ball and getting out of the way.
So while Beal’s driving layup with 6.9 seconds remaining against the New York Knicks propelled the Wizards (12-13) on their current three-game winning streak, the clutch shots of the past two wins were the result of unselfish deliveries. Nene handed off the ball to Beal for a huge three-pointer against Brooklyn, and Wall found Ariza for a crushing three-pointer in Boston.
“That’s the good thing about our team,” Wall said. “We’ve got guys like me and Brad that’s willing to take and make the big shot if we have to make the plays, but you have three other guys on the court at the same time that’s willing to make the play or take that shot. That put a lot of pressure on the defense because we’re not one to throw the ball to the elbow or [run isolation plays]. We’re moving the ball, running our plays and executing down the stretch. Got a lot of options. Makes your team hard to guard.”
Moving the ball also creates a challenge for the opposition, and the Wizards are sharing better than they have since they had Chris Webber, Juwan Howard and Rod Strickland in uniform. Washington is ninth in the NBA at 23.1 assists per game. It hasn’t finished in the top 10 in assists since 1997-98, the first season after the team switched from Bullets to Wizards.
That season, the Wizards also ranked ninth at 23.2 assists per game, with Strickland leading the league with 10.5. In the 15 seasons that followed, the Wizards were in the league’s bottom third in assists 12 times and ranked last in 2003-04 at just 18.7 assists per game. They were 19th last season — their highest ranking since the 1999-2000 season — and that was with Wall missing 33 games.
Of the Wizards’ 937 made field goals this season, 578 (61.7 percent) have come as the result of an assist. Washington has recorded an assist on 17.5 percent of its possessions, which ranks sixth in the NBA.
The Wizards will be in Minnesota on Friday seeking to win their fourth straight road game — without playing a home game — for the first time since February 1973.
In Coach Randy Wittman’s free-for-all, buffet-style offense, Wall and Beal both lead the Wizards in scoring at 19.6 points per game, but the team actually has six players averaging at least 12.5 points, a reflection of the talent on the roster and the willingness to share. Seven players have scored at least 20 points in a game, and four have scored at least 30. The Wizards have had four different leading scorers in their past five games.
“I don’t care how you do it as long as you get it done,” Wittman said. “There’s a lot of different options and ways we can go about exploiting the other team.”
Wall, Beal, Ariza (15.8), Nene (14.8) and Webster (12.8) are all averaging career highs in scoring. “The fact that we have so many assets out there and guys that we can go to, it confuses other teams,” Beal said. “Who are they going to put their best defender on? Me, John or one of the shooters who’s been hot all game? That’s definitely to our benefit. When somebody is not having a good game, other guys step.”
The turnaround may have begun with a 104-100 victory over the Timberwolves on Nov. 19, when Wall had a career-high 16 assists and the Wizards had 31. They have had three games with at least 30 assists this season, winning all three, and are 8-2 when they have at least 24 assists.
“We can go to a lot of different things. We got Bradley. Nene and I can work with John in the pick and roll. And you got Trevor and Martell spotting up in the corner,” Gortat said. “I think we are becoming a very good team, more mature team. I still think there are a lot of things we can do better, we can work on, but I always say for us, John is making huge steps towards being a very good point guard and, with this team, a very good leader, and if he’s going to continue to get better like that, the whole team will get better.”
Wall ranks third in the NBA in assists at 9.1, trailing only Chris Paul in points created by assists per game (22.0). Though he enjoys setting up his teammates, Wall doesn’t get upset if his pass isn’t always the one that produces a bucket.
“Nobody is caring who scores the ball,” Wall said. “If somebody is hot, we definitely try to find that guy, but we encourage each other. That’s the key to our team. We respect and we believe the next guy can make a big play for our team.”