Was Warriors-Hawks a Finals Preview? How can the Wizards Make the Jump?

It’d be easy to answer the first question in one statement: nobody knows anything. But that wouldn’t be nearly as fun, nor would it fit into the 1,000 word minimum I’ve allotted myself.

If last night’s games were any indication, we are in a golden age of basketball at the professional level. The spread of talent across the league, despite the obvious conference imbalance, may be above that of the league’s talent pool twenty years ago, only there is no equivalent to the Jordan-led Chicago Bulls. The Western Conference is a complete toss-up and that’s excluding a dangerous Oklahoma City team that could very well miss the playoffs. There is no clear favorite in the East, because despite Atlanta’s dominance this year, there is still a guy named LeBron James in Cleveland who’s been on a tear since his return from a two-week absence.

I was watching the Warriors and Hawks game last night, doing my best to imagine this game as a Finals preview and I found myself on an emotional rollercoaster. There was disbelief, then excitement, then dread, then hope and finally acceptance. There was no rooting side for me in last night’s game, except the piece of me that just wants to watch good basketball, and I only found that in one team last night.

Now before I go down this road, let me make one thing abundantly clear. I think the Warriors are a great team. Despite my allegiance to John Wall and Bradley Beal over in DC, I’m on the side that believes Steph Curry and Klay Thompson are the best backcourt in the league… maybe even ever. Steve Kerr has proven to be the upgrade they needed at head coach, and their defense has been exactly what it needed to be at times. There are reasons to believe this team is headed for the Finals.

But watching last night, Atlanta was just the better basketball team. They use the screens set for them, the ball moves in and out, Jeff Teague and Al Horford run a beautiful pick-n-roll game that sets up plenty of shots for Korver and company. Golden State, especially in crunch time, is far too reliant on Steph and Klay’s shooting ability that I believe that is what will be the end of them. In the fourth quarter last night, only six points down, the Warriors ran four straight plays in which Thompson set the screen at the top of the key, Curry dribbled to the left and Splash! Other times he dribbled around and flipped to Klay, but other times. He missed. What were the other three Warriors doing these possessions? Absolutely nothing. Ball watching, and as a result who was all over the boards in the final minutes? Atlanta.

Now if I’m Golden State, am I mad about Klay or Curry jacking up threes in crunch time? Not at all. These two, as well as James Harden, are incredibly good at creating their own shot and shooting off the dribble and I wouldn’t anyone else taking that shot. It’s a no-brainer… such a no-brainer that every team will be looking for it, force the ball out of their hands and into the hands of guys like Harrison Barnes and Andre Iguodala, whom I like but not with the last shot.

The Warriors high pace scoring and improved defense will be enough to keep them atop the western conference, but when they reach the playoffs and face teams like Memphis or San Antonio in a seven-game series, the lack of ball movement and predictability down the stretch may just be their undoing. If they make it to the Finals and face a team like Atlanta, Chicago or Washington, their only hope is to shoot 60% from three for four games at least. But who knows, if anyone was to do it, Curry and Klay are the guys to do so.

I mentioned John Wall and Bradley Beal earlier, guys I believe could be the perfect foil to Steph and Klay’s play. Unlike Curry, Wall is a pass-first shoot later that is going to find the better basketball play in crunch time. He’s an improved shooter, but his game is driving to the lane and either finishing or dishing to the open man, depending on how the defense reacts. Beal is an impressive shooter form beyond the arch and can put the ball on the floor as well. He’s small than Klay, but has enough length to maybe force the ball out of Thompson’s hands. This maybe the best back court matchup out there, so let’s say the Warriors do make it to the Finals… what do the Wizards have to do to meet them there?

The answer is probably the opposite prescription I gave the Warriors: shoot more threes. Washington is shooting 37% from three as a team, good for third in the NBA behind Atlanta and Golden State, but they only average 15 attempts per game, compared to 25 for Atlanta and 27 for Golden State. Instead, Washington is a mid-range heavy offense.

This type of game is simultaneously awful, but part of the reason for Washington’s success. The mid-range is the least efficient shot in the game. Its distance combined with its value (only two points, same as a layup or dunk) make it an incredibly unfavorable shot, but because of this, it’s wide-open. In the modern day stat-heavy NBA, fewer teams are putting any defensive energy towards guarding it, and for a good shooting team like Washington, this leaves a lot of easy buckets… as long as they are hitting. This was part of their success against Chicago last year, and how Nene was able to dominate Joakim Noah. Noah gave him the space and Nene hit. But when he wasn’t hitting, Noah moved closer to the basket, eliminating any drives to the basket and taking away potential second chance opportunities.

If Washington were to eliminate some of those twenty-foot shots were 2 pts, and replace them with twenty-three-foot shots worth 3 pts (a 50% increase in value for one step back), Washington could become a dominant offense. John Wall has begun this transition, attempting almost 3 a game (versus barely 1 his first two years), but the team attempts will have to go up. Of course, this would be far more defended than the mid-range shot, but the value is worth the risk. As of right now, the Wizards are a top-ten defense but only rank 17th offensively. One step back could be the change needed to lift them out of the Eastern Conference and into this year’s NBA Finals.

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