Kelly Oubre must anchor the Wizards bench
Demolishing the top seed in the Eastern Conference by 21 points with just over a quarter of basketball in the 2017 NBA Playoffs, having been played in a must-win Game 3, Kelly Oubre Jr. let his emotions get the better of him.
The then 21-year-old forward scored 12 points in each of the first two games of the Washington Wizards’ series against the Boston Celtics, but just five minutes and two points into this contest, he was gone. As Isaiah Thomas brought the ball across the timeline, center Kelly Olynyk set a screen right-elbow-extended that leveled the self-proclaimed Los Angeles A-Lister. No call was made.
Oubre Jr. didn’t take kindly to it at all and proceeded to charge at the seven-footer, who appeared to be in the clutches of referee Monty McCutchen, and knocked him down anyway. He was ejected after the officials reviewed the play and was subsequently suspended for Game 4.
“That reminded me of a play Giannis Antetokounmpo made in his first playoff series,” the esteemed Doris Burke said on the broadcast. “It’s the play of a young guy, obviously.”
That moment was a year ago, but here were the Wizards and Oubre Jr. in present day, faced with an eerily similar situation against Toronto. The No. 1 seeded Raptors took Game 2 of the series in such convincing fashion, head coach Scott Brooks hinted at a change to the starting lineup post-game. In hindsight, with no change having been made, perhaps it was to light a fire under a starting unit that had failed so miserably — save for John Wall — to that point.
The Wizards got out to another poor start, trailing 27-18 with just under three minutes remaining in the first quarter. Ty Lawson collected a rebound off after Jakob Poeltl failed to tip-in a DeMar DeRozan miss and saw that Oubre Jr. had run out ahead of the pack. As he received the ball and made his move toward the basket, Toronto’s best rim-protector — Serge Ibaka — stood between him and the basket. The third-year player out of Kansas tried to make a statement, anyway, hop-stepping around him before trying to dunk it on his head. Ibaka fouled, and Oubre Jr. went to the line.
On the very next play, Oubre Jr. showed the Congolese native how it’s done, rejecting Delon Wright’s shot attempt at the rim as the help defender. A turnover followed, and an Oubre Jr. dunk after that.
Then, came deja vu.
Picking up the Raptors’ best scorer in DeMar DeRozan at halfcourt, backup center Jakob Poeltl came to the top of the arc to set a screen. This time Oubre Jr. drew the offensive foul, and on a block/charge call where the process is ultimately defined by the result, it was Gary Zielinski’s recognition of the violation by Poeltl that made Oubre Jr. react much differently than he did a year ago. He was on his back once again, but ecstatic, letting out a primeval roar of approval while flexing in a manner that would have left Dwayne Johnson proud.
When the six-foot-seven forward came out of Kansas, he brought a seven-foot-one wingspan which made his potential all the more intriguing. He had a smooth shooting stroke and shot 35.8 percent from the college three-point line, and despite the lack of a general floor game, was good enough to be selected with the 15th overall pick.
After being traded by the Atlanta Hawks to Washington on draft day, the promise the theory of Oubre Jr.’s frame and stroke showed had failed to materialize. He was a good defender, but in a league that demands offensive quality, his most desired skill was only converting shots from beyond the arc at 31.6 percent in his rookie season. That number dwindled down to 28.7 percent in his second year, but perhaps the unconventional method he was using to ignite his redeeming quality on the offensive side of the ball just needed more time.
The STRIVR system is a virtual reality company that has worked with the Wizards since Oubre Jr.’s rookie season. He was fully engaged in the process of a system that could break down his shot into the most minute details, but it has taken till this season for the results to truly show. After making just 79 of his first 267 three-point attempts in the NBA, the New Orleans native has shot 126-for-369 (34.1 percent) in 2017-18. His free-throw shooting has shot up the charts from 63.3 percent in his rookie year to 82 percent this season as well.
All told, Oubre Jr. has nearly quadrupled his scoring output from his first year to 11.8 per game now, and has become an integral part of a sturdier bench unit that doesn’t just roll over as it did in 2016-17.
So, there he was, excitable but poised as he delivered his rallying cry, a nine-point deficit cut to five with possession of the ball. He sets a flare screen to free up Bradley Beal for a three, Toronto’s lead is cut to two. Inspired by his teammate, Ian Mahinmi now gets in on the act and denies C.J. Miles on a dunk attempt. The crowd now fully immersed into the game, a reality the Raptors were so hoping to avoid.
It gets better for the Wizards. The inbounds goes to DeRozan, perhaps flustered by the crowd, he fails to recognize a shot clock that’s winding down. Oubre Jr. is all over him poking the ball away, before the all-star in front of him is forced into a tough fadeaway. Oubre Jr. blocks that too, shot clock violation.
By the end of the quarter, Washington leads 30-29, but it feels much more like the eventual 122-103 final scoreline.
“We got a taste of what we can accomplish,” Oubre Jr. told a TSN sideline reporter after the game. “We just have to continue to play our game and the next game is a new task at hand so we have to tie this series up and go back to Toronto with a new mindset.”
Wall and Beal needed to be great and were with 56 points and 18 assists combined, but in a moment that they needed more, Oubre Jr. learned from his past and gave them more.
Going up against a team that had never held a 2-0 series lead in its history, they played like they’d been there before, well, because they had. This is a reality they’re comfortable with. They’ve visualized what makes them successful, and on Sunday, they’ll try to do it again.