Two games in a row now the Rockets have been able to pull out despite playing short-handed. The new acquisitions from Sacramento have yet to join the team, and according to Jonathan Feigen it is unlikely that they will be in DC for the game either. So the Rockets arrive in Washington looking to sweep their shorthanded post-trade deadline stretch. It will be a huge morale boost for the team if they can claim the W, and will further cement their chances of achieving a playoff spot.
Unexpectedly, the Wizards have quietly turned into quite a good team. The return of John Wall has revitalized their squad, and they’ve recently ripped off a 4 game win streak. It wasn’t against powder-puff opposition either (although given Washington’s recent history they can’t really call any opponents that) – they dispatched the Clippers, Knicks, Nets and Bucks, all of whom currently occupy playoff spots. Underestimate these guys at your peril especially on their court on the second night of a back-to-back. The Wizards also played last night, pulling off yet another good win against the Nuggets.
As mentioned, the Rockets will very likely be without Robinson or Garcia tonight (I’m expecting Honeycutt will be going to the D-League). Delfino will be playing the PF – it remains to be seen whether the Wizards will be prepared for this unusual starting tactic. With all of the small ball you can expect to see Anderson continue to get minutes off the bench as an additional wing – he hasn’t done much flashy stuff but has been able to sink a few shots and although he’s not someone to get excited about, it’s good to have him there to paper over the cracks in the rotation until Garcia arrives. On the other hand, Motiejunas has been trying to do as much eye-catching as he can since a window opened up for him to earn some minutes. As Rahat described, he definitely has the tools to help this team, it’s just a question of whether the deficiencies in his game are big enough to keep him off the court.
The Wizards dealt away Jordan Crawford at the deadline for basically nothing, since Leandro Barbosa is injured until the end of the season and Collins isn’t going to see the court very much. But his volume shooting ways seem surplus to requirements now that they’ve got their mouthwatering young backcourt healthy on the court. One gets the feeling that Wall and Beal are going to be a tandem we’ll be hearing about for some time. They are the future of the Wizards franchise, and the early signs have been bright. Of course, one mustn’t forget that in the present they also have a pretty decent starting frontcourt as well – Nene and Okafor may not be stars, but they are both very capable big men and should not be underestimated. Around this core, coach Randy Wittman has at his disposal a bevy of players who would all fit under the traditional ‘Forward’ designation. Martell Webster got the start at SF against the Nuggets, but the hard-working Chris Singleton and our old friend Trevor Ariza are also available to fill out the wing rotation. Trevor Booker and Kevin Seraphim will spell Nene and Okafor at PF/C. When Wall needs a break they can call on the services of AJ Price to round out the rotation. 10 deep and solid (if unspectacular) at every position, you can see why they’ve been having an uptick in fortunes recently.
As it was last night, the key in this game will be the battle between Delfino and Nene. Whichever player can take advantage of their opponent’s defensive weaknesses better will give their team the upper hand in this one. Against Brooklyn, Delfino was able to get all the space he wanted on the perimeter, especially when guarded by the slower Evans. Both Nene and Booker are more mobile than the PFs he saw last night, but he should still be able to run them off the floor. Expect to see him get close to last night’s total of 9 three point attempts.
It remains to be seen if the Wizards will give the job of guarding Harden to Beal or look to put the bigger Webster on him. Gerald Wallace, who has a similar build, did a good job of limiting Harden’s productivity in Brooklyn, but I’m not sure how much of that was his own doing and how much of that was the Nets’ ability to poke the ball away when Harden tried one of his drives. He wasn’t especially assertive in last night’s game with the exception of a short period at the end of the third quarter, so hopefully he will be looking to bounce back tonight.
One of the main drivers of improvement in this Wizards squad since the New Year has been their commitment to defence. They are physical in the paint and although their defensive intensity blows hot and cold, they’ve finally managed to get the team as a whole to buy in to the a mindset that is helping them win games. In the past, their help rotations have been slow and lackadaisical, but watching snippets of their tilt with the Nuggets last night that facet of their game looked much improved. The Rockets will need to execute well out of the pick-and-roll to keep the offense flowing. We’ve seen both Asik and Motiejunas have great success working with Lin recently, some spectacular highlights last night against Brooklyn (although admittedly, many of them came when Mirza Telatovic was on the floor – that guy didn’t seem to understand how help defense works), and it will be imperative to keep that going tonight.
I have unhappy memories of watching John Wall torch the Rockets in an up-and-down affair in DC a few years back. He’s one of the quickest players around in the open court and will make you pay if the tempo is too high. This is somewhat worrying as the Rockets have struggled to deal with teams like Denver that are capable of thriving in a fast paced game. It will be down to the still somewhat ropey transition defense to hold firm and stop the ball.
Beyond that, there’s also the Nene/Delfino mismatch. Unlike Ibaka and Evans from the previous two games, Nene actually has a semblance of a post game. He’s strong but mobile and is likely to present a much stiffer challenge to Carlos than either of his previous matchups. You should see some quick post moves, and he’s more than capable of marmalizing the rim if you give him an open roll to the hoop. One of the other issues this pairing presents is that of glass protection. There were a few moments in the last few games where it felt like the Rockets were getting out-battled in the rebounding department, although it didn’t end up killing them. But last night the Wizards managed to grab 18 offensive rebounds against what is a pretty formidable rebounding team in Denver. You can bet that they’ll be looking at the small lineup Houston is putting on the floor and licking their lips.
While their respective records would make it look like a Rockets victory is a foregone conclusion, recent improvements in Washington’s level of play make this anything but that. This is going to be a difficult game, especially on the second night of a back-to-back, and if the Rockets are going to come away with it their going to have to work hard to exploit the mismatches their line-up composition presents on offense while covering for their rebounding and post-defense disadvantage. This is the definition of a trap game, and I would not be surprised if the Wizards came away with the victory.