Here’s what you missed around the NBA Tuesday while you scoured stores looking for the Tostitos chip bag that has a breathalyzer on the bag…
1) Wizards drop Knicks for 15th home win in a row, Washington may be the second best team in the East. Remember when the Wizards started the season 2-8? All the talk was about how John Wall and Bradley Beal didn’t get along, how Marcin Gortat was ripping the bench’s play, and what the heck was Scott Brooks doing?
If you don’t remember, that’s okay. What you need to know is that since Dec. 1 the Wizards are 22-9, the best record in the Eastern Conference for that stretch. After dropping the Knicks 117-101 Tuesday, Washington has won 15 games in a row at home. Beal had 28 points, while Wall was making it look easy, spinning around the Knicks’ defenders.
What’s gone right in Washington starts with health. Beal and Wall are both finally healthy at the same time, and it turns out when they play together for an extended stretch they do have chemistry — when those two are on the court together, the Wizards have outscored opponents by nine points per 100 possessions this season. Coach Scott Brooks deserves some of the credit for this health. Former coach Randy Wittman was old school and would run three-hour practices at times, rarely relented on making the team work off the court, and by the end of the season the team was worn down and injured (with Beal battling stress fractures). Brooks is a modern coach who keeps his practices tight and is a big believer in time for recovery. It shows.
The Wizards five starters (Wall, Beal, Otto Porter, Markieff Morris, Marcin Gortat) outscore opponents by 11.3 per 100 this season — that’s third best in the NBA among five-man lineups that have played at least 200 minutes together. The only lineups that have been better are the Warriors’ starters and the healthy Clippers’ starters — not the Spurs’ starters (+10), not the Cavaliers’ starters (+9.3), not anyone. Brooks has kept the defensive game plans consistent while diversifying the offensive sets — it’s not just Wall pick-and-rolls anymore, there are flex sets and Wall works off the ball at times. The bench that struggled early has rebounded, led by the defensive energy (and some scoring) from Kelly Oubre, Jr.
The Wizards are the current four seed in the East, just two games back of two-seed Boston. All season long we have said that Toronto was the second best team in the East, and that maybe Boston could threaten them for that title. We need to start mentioning the Wizards in that group. They are that good. And they are legit.
2) Kyle Lowry‘s game winner for Raptors was shot of the night. Kyle Lowry had not been clutch this season, going into Tuesday night’s game against the Pelicans he was 1-of-21 on go-ahead shot attempts in final 10 seconds of regulation or overtime (stat via ESPN). Then he did this.
You can’t blame Solomon Hill here — he switched onto Lowry and defended that as well as one could. But good offense beats good defense. Lowry had 33 on the night, and the stumbling Raptors got a win they needed.
3) Kawhi Leonard had a very good night, and the Spurs win. Russell Westbrook has never had a triple-double against the Spurs, not once in 46 games (via ESPN). Over time that is certainly about the system, as are most things in San Antonio, but on Tuesday night it was also about Kawhi Leonard. Westbrook still had 27 points on 17 shots on the night, but was 0-of-4 in the fourth quarter. Meanwhile, Leonard had 12 points in 4:15 once he checked in for the fourth and he put the game away (the Spurs won 108-94). Leonard also did this:
Leonard had 36 points on the night, to go with his always stellar defense.
The MVP race remains Westbrook vs. James Harden, but that next tier has to include Leonard. He has been brilliant this season.