7:00 PM EST, NBA TV – Line: Nets -8.5, Over/Under: 244.5
A pair of teams traveling in very different directions meet tonight in the nation’s capitol, as the new-look Brooklyn Nets look to continue to build the requisite chemistry to contend for a championship, while the fading Washington Wizards simply try to return to full health, from Capital One Arena in Washington, DC. Coming into this season, the Nets (13-8, 2nd in Eastern Conference) were arguably the biggest unknown in the National Basketball Association, after assembling the league’s latest power couple through Free Agency in the form of (former MVP) Kevin Durant (30.5 PTS, 51.7% FG, 44.4% 3FG, 7.5 REB, 5.5 AST, 0.7 STL, 1.5 BLK, 26.5 PER) and (All-Star Point Guard) Kyrie Irving (27.7 PTS, 52.7% FG, 41.9% 3FG, 4.8 REB, 5.8 AST, 1.1 STL, 0.8 BLK, 25.3 PER), though the duo wouldn’t play a single minute together in the 2019-2020 campaign with the former missing the entirety of the season rehabbing from a torn Achilles. Irving himself only logged twenty games, as Brooklyn would fire (Head Coach) Kenny Atkinson after sixty-two games, with (longtime assistant) Jacque Vaughn leading the team to a second straight defeat in the First Round of the Playoffs. However, with Durant fully recovered from his injury the franchise turned heads when they hired (another former MVP) Steve Nash to be their Head Coach moving forward. Needless to say, this was a bit of a headscratcher, folks, for the 46-year old has retired from the NBA following an injury-riddled 2013-2014 campaign and has spent the last six years largely removed from the league altogether save for a season working as a consultant with the Golden State Warriors, which apparently endeared himself greatly to Durant, with that relationship proving to be the driving force towards his hiring despite lacking coaching experience on any professional level, let alone in the NBA. Like many teams in the early stages of this season, Brooklyn endured it’s ups and downs under Nash’s watch, going 7-6 before the Association was stopped dead in it’s tracks by the biggest in-season blockbuster trade in years, as the Nets acquired (yet another former MVP) James Harden (24.5 PTS, 46.3% FG, 37.1% 3FG, 6.4 REB, 11.1 AST, 1.0 STL, 0.7 BLK, 23.5 PER) in a four-team mega-trade with the Houston Rockets, Indiana Pacers, and Cleveland Cavaliers. In exchange for the three-time reigning scoring champion, (General Manager) Sean Marks parted ways with four players including Caris LeVert, Jarrett Allen, Taurean Prince, and Rodions Kurucs, along with a wealth of assets including four First Round Picks and four Pick Swaps, depleting their draft capital for the foreseeable future. The long-rumored deal finally put together the NBA’s latest Big Three, teaming Harden with Durant (who were teammates for three years in Oklahoma City) and Irving, creating a triumvirate consisting of a staggering twenty-four All-Star selections, eighteen All-NBA nods, seven scoring titles, a pair of MVP awards, and three Larry O’Brien trophies. So in the eight games since the deal, how have things played out, you ask? Nash’s charges have since won six of eight since the trade, including each of their last four outings, averaging a prolific 125.0 points per game on 50.6% shooting from the field, including 39.7% from beyond the arc, with 27.9 assists in comparison to committing 13.3 turnovers. It will be interesting to see how these three come together, for during this period both Durant and Irving have missed time as Harden has settled into his new digs rather quickly, averaging 24.3 points 7.8 rebounds, and 11.3 assists with his new team, embracing the role of facilitator. With that said, it’s become clear that the biggest concern moving forward will be on the defensive end for a team that spent a good deal of size and depth in the deal to acquire the bearded one. Since adding Harden tot he mix, Brooklyn has relinquished 121.5 points per game on 46.6% shooting overall and 34.3% from downtown, while yielding 25.4 assists and forcing just 10.5 turnovers. However, with the kind of firepower that they have at their disposal there will be nights where they will be able to simply outgun their opponents, which was precisely the case on Friday night…
“We’ve just got to find that balance of when to be aggressive and when to make plays. I think even with our aggressiveness, we’re still playmakers. I think throughout the course of the game, we did a really good job of getting our guys involved, but then being aggressive and scoring the ball as well. Nothing really changes, even when KD is in the lineup as well.”James Harden on the Nets franchise-tying 147-point performance at the Thunder on Friday
When we last saw the Nets, they won their fourth straight game and did so by matching the prolific offensive performance in franchise history by blowing out the Oklahoma City Thunder on the road in a 147-125 drubbing of historical proportions. Seriously, what is more impressive, folks: the fact that Brooklyn nearly dropped 150 points during regulation or the fact that they did it without the aforementioned Durant, whom Nash was resting? As you can imagine, the numbers were a bit difficult to fathom, but we’ll run the gauntlet anyway. NINE different players scored in double-figures for the visitors, with Harden and Irving scoring twenty-five apiece, as the former logged his third triple-double with his new team notching ten rebounds and eleven assists. (Sharpshooting Forward) Joe Harris (14.3 PTS, 50.4% FG, 47.8% 3FG, 3.8 REB, 2.0 AST, 0.6 STL, 14.1 PER) added twenty points on 7-of-13 shooting (53.8%), including 5-of-9 from beyond the arc (55.6%), with (Guard) Bruce Brown (6.5 PTS, 59.0% FG, 17.6% 3FG, 4.1 REB, 0.8 AST, 13.8 PER) adding nineteen of his own, while the Bench outscored that of the host’s 48-37. As a team, the Nets shot an insane 57.0% from the field, including 19-of-45 from downtown (42.2%), racked up thirty-three assists, and outrebounded the Thunder 50-36. Furthermore, they turned twelve turnovers into sixteen points, outscored them 70-38 in the paint, leading by as much as twenty-five. If not for Oklahoma City’s residence at the charity stripe, where they knocked down 29-of-34 free-throws (translating to a Plus-15 advantage) then this affair would have been even more lopsided than it already was. The visiting side built momentum early, leading by nine at the conclusion of the first period before ripping off ten unanswered points to begin the second stanza, in which the home side went scoreless for nearly three and a half minutes of action. In the meantime, Nash will no doubt try to keep them humble as the head to the nation’s capitol, where they’ll look to avenge an earlier loss to the Wizards, who bested them in a thrilling 123-122 affair at Barclays Center back on January 3rd. Of course, this was prior to the Harden trade, with Irving and Durant combining for fifty-eight points, fifteen rebounds, and seventeen assists, though each missed their shot at a game-winner in the final six seconds of play. The hosts shot 49.4% overall, 14-of-32 from three (43.8%), and 28-of-31 from the free-throw line (90.3%) on that night, but were rather careless with the basketball as twenty turnovers turned into twenty-two points for the visitors. Durant, a D.C. native, should be a game-time decision for tonight’s rematch, and over the course of his career has enjoyed squaring up against his hometown team, torching them for 27.8 points on 51.9% shooting from the field, including 36.8% from long distance.
Meanwhile, it’s been a completely different story for the Wizards (3-12, 15th in Eastern Conference), who for all intents and purposes appear to be finally bottoming out in a season that began with such promise. After missing the Playoffs for a second consecutive year, Washington pulled off a blockbuster trade with the Houston Rockets, acquiring (former MVP) Russell Westbrook (18.9 PTS, 38.1% FG, 33.3% 3FG, 9.3 REB, 9.6 AST, 0.9 STL, 13.3 PER) in exchange for (former All-Star Point Guard) John Wall and a First Round Pick. This was a fascinating deal for a variety of reasons, none more so than the fact that both players were thought to have been immovable due to the supermax contract extensions that they were well within. Of course, Wall was drafted No. One Overall by the Wizards a decade ago, and after leading the club to four Postseason appearances in a five-year span missed all but thirty-two games over the past two seasons rehabbing from a torn Achilles. Westbrook on the other hand, now finds himself suiting up for his third team in as many seasons, arriving after a one-year spell in Houston which flamed out in the Western Conference Semifinals as the Rockets were handed a gentleman’s sweep courtesy of the eventual NBA Champion, Los Angeles Lakers. While the two floor generals possess similar skillsets, the difference between them was simple: sure Westbrook is two years older than the man he’s replacing, but even on the back end of his career he’s been a much more productive player, not to mention a healthier one. Factor in his prior relationship with (Head Coach) Scott Brooks and the deal makes more and more sense. Now the hope here is that Westbrook’s presence would help persuade Washington’s other star Guard, Bradley Beal (34.7 PTS, 47.4% FG, 33.7% 3FG, 5.1 REB, 4.8 AST, 1.4 STL, 26.0 PER), from fleeing the nation’s capitol, with the dynamic duo expected to form one of the most prolific Backcourts in the Association and propel the franchise back up the proverbial ladder in the Eastern Conference. While there’s plenty of logic in that game plan, the execution has been nothing short of a disaster. Sure, Beal is in the midst of career campaign, leading the league in scoring at a whopping 34.7 points per game, but Westbrook has never LESS efficient, shooting a career-low 38.1% from the field, including a troubling 39.7% from WITHIN the three-point arc. Think about that one, folks: one of the most notoriously poor three-point shooters in and a lifetime 46.9% shooter on two-point field goals is actually shooting a higher percentage from beyond the arc. The other issue is that even despite collecting stats such as 9.3 rebounds and 9.6 assists, the 32-year old is also turning the basketball over 5.0 times a night. With all that said, as perplexing as Westbrook has been this season, the Wizards still remain arguably the worst defensive team in the league, yielding 120.1 points per game (29th Overall) on 48.6% shooting overall (29th Overall), including 37.8% from downtown (22nd Overall), all the while committing more personal fouls than any other team (23.6), which has led to 28.2 free-throws a night for the opposition (29th Overall). Furthermore, they’ve struggled immensely to protect the rim, allowing a league-high 55.2% shooting on two-point field goals (30th Overall) with just 3.5 blocks (30th Overall). Lastly, Brooks hasn’t been able to get things straightened out largely due to COVID-19, for Washington has been one of many teams to have been absolutely ROCKED by the virus; at one point they had six consecutive games postponed over the course of thirteen days with a wealth of players missing action due to exposure, and as a result the team has lost four straight contests after finally returning to the hardwood on January 24th.
“I just didn’t have it going. I told the guys I gave them nothing. I’ve got to be a lot better.”Bradley Beal on his shooting woes in Friday’s 116-100 loss to the Hawks
When we last saw the Wizards, their misery continued as they were hammered by the Atlanta Hawks in a 116-100 loss that saw their frustrations boil over in the form nine technical fouls and three ejections between the two sides, with Westbrook chief among them. Even as the rotation finally welcomed back the likes of (Forwards) Davis Bertans (10.9 PTS, 34.9% FG, 33.7% 3FG, 3.1 REB, 1.3 AST, 0.6 STL, 11.0 PER), Rui Hachimura (13.0 PTS, 48.1% FG, 33.3% 3FG, 4.6 REB, 2.1 AST, 0.5 STL, 14.1 PER) and Moe Wagner (5.3 PTS, 64.7% FG, 57.1% 3FG, 4.0 REB, 0.7 AST, 14.0 PER), the hosts were simply overrun early, outscored 31-22 in the First Quarter, and could never get back into the affair the rest of the way. As a team, Washington shot a miserable 36.5% from the field, including just 7-of-28 from beyond the arc (25.0%), where they were outscored by fifteen points. Even netting 31-of-38 free-throws wasn’t enough to help them, for their stagnant attack was rudderless to say the least, assisting just thirteen field goals. Defensively, they couldn’t keep Atlanta off the charity stripe (26-of-34) despite holding them to respectable 44.8% shooting overall. However, this was a matchup that featured two of the league’s sharpest young shooters, and it was one that the aforementioned Beal would lose in spades to Trae Young, who outscored him forty-one to twenty-six, which coincidentally happened to be the lowest scoring output of the season thus far for the 27-year old. The subject of continuous trade speculation, Beal never could find his stroke, shooting a dismal 10-of-26 from the floor (38.5%), including a season-worst 0-of-8 from downtown (0.0%). Westbrook matched him in points, but was thrown out of the contest after repeatedly exchanging words with Rajon Rondo in the final frame of play. In their return to action, the triumvirate of Bertans, Hachimura, and Wagner struggled to make much of an impact, combining for a scant ten points, with Bertans totaling a single point on 0-of-7 shooting in just over twenty-five minutes of action. Needless to say, the Wizards expect MUCH more out of the Latvian international after resigning him to a lucrative five-year/$80 million contract during the abridged Offseason. Bertans averaged a career-high 15.4 points and shot 42.4% from the perimeter after arriving from San Antonio last season, and should help alleviate some of the offensive load from Beal. Brooks stated after the game that he’s expecting to have the rest of the COVID-inflicted players back in action, as Ish Smith (5.9 PTS, 39.4% FG, 33.3% 3FG, 3.4 REB, 4.0 AST, 0.6 STL, 10.9 PER), Troy Brown (4.6 PTS, 43.3% FG, 33.3% 3FG, 3.1 REB, 1.1 AST, 6.8 PER), and this year’s Ninth Overall Pick, Deni Advija (7.0 PTS, 45.2% FG, 45.7% 3FG, 4.0 REB, 2.2 AST, 1.0 STL, 11.2 PER), are cleared to play.