Let’s start with this: Don’t panic about the Wizards.
No doubt a 2-0 hole in their best-of-7 Eastern Conference playoff series with the Celtics is the opposite of ideal. It’s also not doom and gloom. Washington now hosts the next two contests starting with Thursday night’s Game 3. Few teams were better at home all season than the Chinatown 15.
There is, however, reason to be on guard when it comes to the Wizards’ backcourt.
No, this isn’t about John Wall. The four-time All-Star looked like an MVP for much of Tuesday’s 129-119 overtime loss. Yes, the point guard missed a potential game-winning shot at the end of regulation and more attempts in the extra period. Playing 47 of a possible 53 minutes and having to guard Boston superhero Isaiah Thomas for most of them will wear out even the NBA’s fastest player.
This isn’t a jab at Bradley Beal, who rebounded Wall’s miss but came up short with his own game-winning attempt. The starting wing guard’s performance Tuesday night might be described by a certain someone in the DMV as low-energy. Beal’s textbook jumper isn’t working in the playoffs – 27.5 percent on 3-pointers. He’s also averaging 25 points per game.
The Wizards aren’t in the semifinal round without their starry backcourt. This is inarguable.
They might not advance any further because of the replacement options when either rests. That’s the honest truth.
Tired legs are no joke. Starting in the Tuesday’s fourth quarter, Wall began settling for jumpers instead of attacking Boston’s defense off the dribble. He made his first two 3-pointers – and then missed eight of nine. Beal is averaging 40 minutes in the postseason, five above his regular season average.
Teams play their best players more and more in the playoffs. That’s common. For Wizards coach Scott Brooks, it’s a necessity.
Fans and analysts alike questioned Washington’s bench options starting last summer when new players joined the returning nucleus led by Wall and Beal and a quality frontcourt.
It took some time but Brooks eventually found enough help from reserve centers and forwards. Ian Mahinmi's (calf strain) absence in the playoffs hasn’t helped, but also isn’t new. Injuries sidelined Washington’s most expensive free agent signing for 51 of 82 regular season games.
Even with the center’s lingering absence, those backcourt backups remain the biggest fear. That hasn’t changed over 90 games.
The Wizards signed Brandon Jennings in late February hoping the enigmatic veteran would provide needed oomph backing up Wall. At his best – typically when playing with a natural partner in Beal -- he’s kept Washington playing at a fast place while setting up teammates for buckets. At his worst – this series hasn’t been so swell -- he’s a defensive liability with a broken jump shot.
The latter version becomes excruciating each game when Brooks uses Jennings with Wall. Ghastly Match.com first dates have more chemistry. The eye test and analytics agree. Leads disappear with these two together quicker than a bystander’s wallet at a pickpocket convention.
Whatever upside comes with Jennings evaporates when he isn’t getting his preferred lead guard chances. When on the court with Wall, he shouldn’t. Turning him into supporting cast on offense combined with his inability to stop most opposing guards on the other end defines double negative.
In fairness to Jennings, the situation improved when he arrived, but that’s damning with faint praise. In fairness to Brooks, his options are limited.
Trey Burke, another off-season acquisition, went from Wall’s primary backup – even though his head coach declared early on that he wasn’t a point guard –to playing in just four of the last 30 games. Czech transplant Tomas Satoransky offers size and enthusiasm, but the postseason might be too big for his first NBA season. Rookie Sheldon McClellan rarely played during the regular season.
This backup group combined with no singular force among the frontcourt options leads Brooks to keeping Wall or Beal on the court at all times. This leads to tired legs. This leads to concern over a seven-game series against a team like Boston with ample and productive backcourt depth.
Maybe Brooks should see if Burke’s 3-point shooting (44 percent during the regular season) offsets his ball handling woes. Maybe the 25-year-old Satoransky, a long-time professional player overseas, won’t wilt under the postseason lights. Maybe McClellan’s grit helps in spot duty. Maybe Jennings finds a rhythm playing before a sellout crowd wishing him well.
Those maybes should scare Wizards nation more than trailing 2-0. Only three teams won more home games than Washington did this season. Boston lost both its matchups at Verizon Center. Wall is rolling. Look for a Beal bounce back. Those two just can’t play every minute. When they sit, be on guard, just like the first 90 games.
Ben Standig talks Wizards daily on the Locked on Wizards podcast, covers the Redskins for BreakingBurgundy.com and tweets way too much via @benstandig.