Seventeen games into the 2021-22 NBA season, the Wizards have made clear they didn’t need a lot of time to start gelling. They sit at 11-6, fourth in the East. They are near the top in almost every offensive and defensive statistical category.
But one nagging pain has cost Washington wins already this year: late-game turnovers.
Of the team’s six losses on the year, four have been by 10 or fewer points. Of their 11 wins, seven have been by 10 or fewer points. The difference in nearly each of those contests has been turnovers the Wizards conceded within the closing minutes of the fourth quarter.
Take the 109-103 loss to Charlotte back on Monday, for example. A win was well within Washington’s grasp down the stretch. With just over four minutes to go and the Wizards down by seven, Bradley Beal’s errant pass was stolen by Terry Rozier, costing Washington an opportunity to cut the lead to a much more manageable four or five points.
Another Beal turnover a minute later, followed by a controversial Montrezl Harrell turnover with 30 seconds left, would seal the win for the Hornets.
“We started to bog down a little bit, and we kinda fell into that same trap of stagnating, not executing. We weren’t always in the right spot,” head coach Wes Unseld Jr. said of the Wizards’ late miscues in that game. “We don’t value those possessions and it catches up to you. And it’s not just the turnovers—those are the obvious ones. But the wasted possessions, the broken possessions where we’re not organized—possessions that usually start bad end bad.”
The game before the loss to Charlotte, a 103-100 comeback victory over the Miami Heat, saw much of the same offensive problems for the Wizards during crunch time. A late shooting surge would ultimately save Washington from three Beal turnovers within the last 5:21 of regulation.
Earlier in November, the Wizards overcame a 17-point halftime deficit vs. the Pelicans to steal a 105-100 home win, which would end up being the final game of a five-game win streak. The difference in that game? Washington only gave up five total turnovers, none of which came in the fourth quarter. Not one. Ball security, once again, reigns supreme in the modern-day NBA.
Beal is the Wizards' best player. Because of that, he's often leaned on to make plays in the final minutes of tight games and can fall into the trap of trying to do too much offensively. He’s been caught driving to the paint haphazardly and a spry defender will take advantage, and the ball.
There are certainly some growing pains from Beal’s perspective. He doesn’t have a ball-dominant point guard like John Wall or Russell Westbrook to orchestrate the lion’s share of the offense during those final, crucial possessions. He seems to be caught in the Scott-Brooks-style offense of last year, which was “give Beal the ball and let him go to work,” more often than not. That might be the reason Beal has given up the league’s fifth-most turnovers per 100 possessions in the clutch this season.
This year is different. Washington has more offensive weapons than they have in nearly a decade, meaning Beal has options. He doesn’t need to rely on the oft-botched drive-and-kick or a difficult stepback midrange jumper.
Rather, he can let Spencer Dinwiddie create more space for him with the ball, or run some flare screens with Kyle Kuzma (who has shown a knack for hitting clutch threes this year—see the win in Cleveland). He could also, though it might sound unreasonable, not touch the ball at all during those possessions, and be used as a decoy to give Kentavious Caldwell-Pope or Corey Kispert more space on the perimeter.
Simply put, options are plentiful for Washington on late offensive possessions this season, unlike last year or the 2019-20 campaign. The Westbrook trade had that specific scenario in mind, and it’s paid off in spades thus far. The Wizards just need to get into a groove of using all their new weapons at their disposal during those oh-so-vital late minutes.
"The biggest adjustment with a new team, new system is always going to be offense, it's rarely ever the defense," Beal said after Monday's loss. "It's about getting adjusted, getting used to guys' tendencies. What certain plays are our go-to's, and we're still getting used to playing with each other still."
It starts with Beal. He’s the longest-tenured Wizard and the team’s clear-cut leader. His offensive improvement in the clutch should be a question of when it happens, rather than if it will. Once it does happen, Washington could unlock an entirely new style with the ball late in games—a style that other teams would likely not be fully equipped to stop.
Of Washington’s next nine games, just one of their opponents has a winning record (Dallas). This is a huge opportunity for the Wizards to make up ground and close in on the top seed in the East. During that stretch, keep an eye on their late-game strategy and how Beal is utilized.