Wizards steal win in Milwaukee with defense, Marcin Gortat

November 28, 2013

We had to get stops and Marcin Gortat shots. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

MILWAUKEE – When John Wall missed a three-pointer and Milwaukee Bucks guard O.J. Mayo came streaking down the court to make a layup with 4 minutes, 11 seconds left in the fourth quarter Wednesday at Bradley Center, the Wizards were understandably upset. In roughly five minutes, the Wizards had gone from leading by seven to trailing by three and teetering toward an embarrassing loss against the worst team in the Eastern Conference.

“We didn’t want to be in that position. We knew we should’ve played better,” Martell Webster said, shaking his head, afterward. “We can’t give games like this away. Especially when you have a team like that, that’s searching for an identity.”

Having already gifting three games this season – to Philadelphia, Oklahoma City and Cleveland – the Wizards were in no mood to let the Bucks be the fourth. Washington delivered a staunch defensive effort the rest of the way and left town with their fifth victory in six games, a 100-92 overtime win. The win moved the Wizards (7-8) into sole possession of the fifth-best record in the weak Eastern Conference – and let Coach Randy Wittman know what his team is capable of accomplishing when it is committed to playing defense.

After Mayo’s layup, the Wizards wouldn’t let the Bucks get another field goal until Mayo made a three-pointer with 6.9 seconds remaining to force overtime. During that critical stretch, the Bucks missed eight shots and committed two turnovers. Marcin Gortat had a block. John Wall and Trevor Ariza both had steals that the Wizards converted into five points – a Webster three-pointer and an Ariza fastbreak layup – to regain the lead.

“Our defense stepped up, and really got after it,” Wittman said. “We’ve been fighting to get our team back on defense like that for 48 minutes. Last year, we were a pretty solid defensive team, and this year, we have gotten off to a slow start. But it’s coming around. I told them, they screwed up, they proved they could play it. So there is no excuse not to. Sometimes, a coach might think they just can’t play defense. But I know better.”

The Wizards have held four of their past five opponents below 100 points, with the only slip up coming in a shootout with the Los Angeles Lakers Tuesday at Verizon Center. But as Ariza joked, “If we don’t play defense and we have more points than the other team, then our defense was our offense.”

Ariza and Webster both missed free throws in the final minute that could’ve ended the game in regulation, but the Wizards also erred when leading 87-84 in the final 10 seconds. Wittman instructed his team to foul, but Mayo (21 points) got loose to tie the game with a deep three-pointer over Nene.

“Having a shot like that go in, forcing overtime can take a lot out of you sometimes,” Wittman said. “Years past, with some of the teams I’ve had here, they would’ve put their heads down and they would’ve never competed in overtime. They were talking very positively at the quarter break. They said, ‘Let’s go win it in overtime.’ ”

Milwaukee was focused on shutting down Wall and Nene after the duo combined to score 61 points against the Lakers, so that meant that the Wizards would have to get offense elsewhere. Gortat took advantage of the extra attention, made his first nine shots and finished with a season-high 25 points. He came within three points of matching his career high.

In overtime, the Wizards went to Gortat out of pick-and-roll situations with Ariza and Webster and he made two huge layups before Ariza put the game out of reach with a three-pointer. “How I felt today, like 18 years old. Running up and down, I felt good. I believe I’m in great shape right now,” Gortat said. “We’re going to have some games where we have better matchups and worse matchups. They doubled Nene and it was opportunity to play and I’m glad my team gave me chances on the post and I was able to go to work. I’m really excited I was able to help the team.”

Nene scored just nine points the night after tallying his new career-high with 30 points thought that Gortat’s big night was predictable. “I spoke to Gortat. I said, ‘Be ready man. ‘cause you’re going to be open.’ No doubt, if you score 30 points, the next night, they going to double and that’s what happened,” Nene said.

But with Nene and Wall both struggling to get going offensively, the Wizards had to find another way to win. “I’m kind of old school. I still believe defense is going to win you more games than offense is,” Wittman said. “I think that’s been proven over our last world champions, the last 15 years, it’s usually a good defensive team.”

“The defense was great,” Webster said after the Wizards handed Milwaukee its 10th straight loss. “That’s our staple. That’s our identity, playing tough nose defense. Now it’s time for us to steal those games that we’re supposed to have. Not even steal. We just got to downright take them. We owe ourselves that. Especially to win the games that we know we should win.”

Michael Lee is the national basketball writer for The Washington Post.
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