Brooklyn Nets forward Kris Humphries swung the ball high above his head, looking for a place to pass when Washington Wizards reserve Chris Singleton swiped and knocked the ball away. Before Humphries and teammate C.J. Watson moved toward the loose ball, John Wall was already off to the races, scooping it up and dunking with two hands.
Nets guard Joe Johnson tried to answer with a floater in the lane, but Trevor Ariza was there to contest and force him into a miss. After Johnson grabbed the rebound, Ariza, Singleton and Kevin Seraphin triple-teamed him and he got rid of the ball to Humphries. Singleton recovered and tied up Humphries, forcing a jump ball that Singleton eventually won.
The Wizards were swarming Friday night at Verizon Center, harassing the Nets into three turnovers and 12 consecutive missed shots to start the second quarter of their 89-74 victory. They stretched a one-point lead to 18 before all-star center Brook Lopez finally scored with 3 minutes 36 seconds left in the first half.
“We’re everywhere, it seems like,” Singleton said after the Wizards limited Brooklyn to a season-low 11 points on 4-of-22 shooting in the second quarter and 32.9 percent shooting for the entire game.
The Nets became the eighth straight team to score fewer than 100 points against the Wizards (14-35), who have won 10 of their past 17 games because of a defensive foundation that was set long before Wall made his season debut last month. An anemic and often inept offense overshadowed what the Wizards had been accomplishing defensively for most of the season, but the recent resurgence has suddenly brought those unheralded efforts to light.
“Even when we were losing a lot of games, we were playing good defense. From Day One, it’s been our staple. We just weren’t scoring enough,” reserve point guard A.J. Price said. “Coaches do a great job of preparing us, so it does have a lot to do with system, schemes and concepts, but then we got guys who are willing to play defense. We got guys who enjoy playing defense. So anytime you get a combination like that, it usually leads to success.”
Entering Saturday, the Wizards ranked sixth in the NBA in points allowed per game at 95.3 and fifth in opponent field goal percentage at 43.7 percent — ahead of such usual stalwarts as Miami, San Antonio and Boston in both categories. The franchise hasn’t ranked among the top 10 in opponent scoring since Michael Jordan’s final season in 2002-03 or in the top 10 in opponent field goal percentage since 1990-91.
“We know that we’re up there in the defensive category and we want to stay there,” Ariza said. “Our best bet is to lock down. Defense is just effort. You just have to put effort in to play defense. Scoring the basketball takes a little bit more, so if we continue to give this effort, we give ourselves a chance every night.”
Coach Randy Wittman started getting the Wizards to make tangible improvement on defense after they traded for Nene last March, but he has been able to implement more effective schemes this season with the additions of Emeka Okafor, Ariza and Price. Having more defensive-minded players on the roster has aided Wittman in getting his players to continue buying in, despite the limited success the first two months of the season. Nene said the players trust one another and are in constant communication on the defensive end, jokingly adding that he has “no water in my mouth” from talking so much.
“You can have the best defensive schemes but if you’re not committed, it ain’t going to be worth” much, Wittman said. “So you’ve got to have guys that are going to take the challenge. . . . It’s a mind-set. You don’t have to have a ball go in anywhere on defense. It’s just a matter of five guys being connected, and we’re connected right now. No question. We’re covering for each other and that’s the main thing.”
The veteran front line of Nene and Okafor has helped the Wizards stick to their primary focus of clogging the middle, limiting points in the paint and forcing teams to beat them from the outside. “We’d rather give up a jumper than a layup,” Price said.
Since Wall made his debut, those principles have been raised to a different level and the results are showing, with only two opponents reaching triple digits in his first 16 games. Over that stretch, Wizards opponents are averaging only 91.3 points, which would rank third in the league, and shooting 43.1 percent from the field, which would be tied for second with Oklahoma City. They have the league’s best defensive efficiency rating with Wall, limiting opponents to just 95.1 points per 100 possessions.
“That’s one thing Coach Witt prides us on is doing it on the defensive end because we can score in various ways and get out in the open court. They was doing a good job of making it tough on teams,” Wall said of his teammates before his return. “The main thing to be good in this league, especially a young team, you got to come out and play hard and that’s what we try to do every night and create offense off of our defense.”
The Wizards had 19 points off 15 turnovers against the Nets, with Wall getting four of his six field goals because of opportunities created from steals.
“Our guys have bought into the system and have worked their tails off to do the things night in and night out that we need to do on the defensive end,” Wittman said. “Are you going to make mistakes? Yeah. But I like our mistakes now being made now because they’re aggressive. We’re overaggressive. We’re trying too hard. You take those as a coach.”