The improved play of the Wizards can be directly traced to the output they're now getting from a second unit that had been at best invisible all season. Kelly Oubre's value already has been accounted for, though he hasn't played well since a Dec. 16 concussion.
The backup point guard, Trey Burke, has become more aggressive offensively and is looking to shoot more and Jason Smith is knocking down his open looks on screen-and-rolls and benefitting from defenses leaving him uncovered.
But this is about much more than making or missing shots. Players go through hot streaks all the time. Coach Scott Brooks has used them in different ways and with different combinations to get better results.
So let's compare what Burke and Smith looked like earlier in the season (discombobulated) to what they're looking like in December, when the Wizards went 10-5 to get to 16-16 entering 2017:
Early in the season, Burke was watching Oubre run screen-and-roll with Markieff Morris. Having him stand on the weakside waiting for a pass from Oubre whose strength isn't creating for others off the dribble isn't going to work for anyone.
Running a screen-roll with Andrew Nicholson makes this easy to defend. The defense isn't going to worry about Nicholson rolling and finishing at the rim. It forces Burke into a difficult spot and he makes an impossible pass at Morris' ankles for a turnover. And the spacing isn't good, either.
— J. Michael (@ThisIsJMichael) January 1, 2017
Smith doesn't seem really involved in this screen-roll with Burke. They force the switch but Burke doesn't attack Bismack Biyombo. Smith doesn't roll to the rim (not his strength) and doesn't spot up as if he's expecting the pass for an open shot. He's just lost in space and he's completely out of position to hit the offensive glass. Burke steps back and takes a low-percentage look rather than making Biyombo, who is really good at defending small players, actually defend him.
How much different does the Burke-Smith screen-roll action look here when they run it crisp and with confidence? And Smith finding the soft spot in the coverage looking to shoot.
Now let's look at how they're being used diffreently now. The most obvious observation is the personnel grouping, using John Wall and the likes of Otto Porter and running Burke of screens with Marrcin Gortat. Less floor time with Marcus Thornton who shoots first:
Porter is being used as the screener as he sets multiple ones on the strong side for Marcus Thornton. It's a good action because he's the best offensive player on the floor with the second unit and will draw the help and attention as the Nets anticipate he's going to get the shot somehow. When Porter cuts, it forces Justin Hamilton to hesitate just a bit while his man, Smith, shifts to get the pass or an open 18-footer.
Smith dribble pitches to Burke and does with his screen what bigs such as Cody Zeller and Al Horford tend to do which is behind over to get an additional bump on the trailer (Spencer Dinwiddie) to make recovery impossible. By the letter of the rule, that's an illegal screen but Wizards' players have been victimized by it repeeatedly and it goes uncalled.
Burke goes off the ball and gets it back as he runs a two-man game with Smith, gets the switch with Brook Lopez defending him. Burke uses a hesitation move, gets to the baseline and then uses the rim to get separation for the reverse. This is how Burke plays best.
Burke can spot up in transition while Wall pushes, draws the defense which is always going to load up on him, to get space for a corner three.
A simple screen-and-roll option with Gortat gets Burke a favorable swtich. He has to be decisive in how to attack and drives hard at Lopez's feet to create separation and is able to pull up and get off the shot before the contest.