Washington Wizards’ defensive struggles a big reason for 0-2 start as Miami Heat await

Paul Sancya/Associated Press - In two games against the Pistons and 76ers, the Wizards have given up 130 points in the paint.

Standing upright didn’t give John Wall the same problems on Saturday as it did the previous night, when he developed back spasms after attempting to take a charge in the second half of the Washington Wizards’ 109-102 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers.

After scoring a team-high 26 points — but only three after halftime — Wall received treatment after the game and moved gingerly through the locker room, clutching for his lower back and groaning in agony.

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Coach Randy Wittman kept his point guard out of practice to rest and recover but it didn’t make much difference. Walking toward the parking garage at Verizon Center, Wall was asked if he was feeling any better and shouted, “Hell no!”

Wall then reached for his back and grimaced.

The Wizards find themselves in a precarious situation as they prepare to face the two-time defending champion Miami Heat on Sunday at American Airlines Arena. Not only are they 0-2 for the fourth straight year after blowing a 12-point second-half lead in their home opener, but the Wizards also might be without Wall and Nene.

Nene has been sidelined with a strained left calf and sore Achilles’ tendon since Wednesday’s’ season-opening loss at Detroit. He was limited to running on a treadmill and light, non-contact drills in practice.

Wittman didn’t want to speculate on the availability of Wall or Nene after assuming that he’d have his big man Friday — until he showed up for introductions wearing a suit.

“That happens in basketball. You’re not going to be up at full strength all the time,” forward Trevor Ariza said. “If you can’t go, you have other players that are more than capable of playing.”

That doesn’t always apply to the absences of Wall and Nene. Last year, the Wizards lost their first nine games and were 0-11 overall last season with the duo sidelined.

Even if Wall or Nene are able to suit up in Miami, the Wizards will continue to struggle unless their defense improves. Entering the season, the defense was considered one of the few certainties with the Wizards after they ranked in the top 10 in points allowed (95.8), defensive field goal percentage (44) and defensive efficiency (100.6 points per 100 possessions). But through the first two games, the Wizards are 30th in points allowed (111) and 29th in defensive field goal percentage (50.9). They have surrendered 130 points inside the paint.

“It is hard,” Wittman said. “Trust me. It’s easier to say, ‘I’m going to outscore you 120-118.’ If you want to win defensively, it’s hard. It takes guts. The willingness to grind it out. We’re not willing to pay that price. We’re not good enough to outscore teams 118-116. If we’re going to win, I’ve got to find at least five that have the guts.”

Opponents have found no deterrent to dribble penetration, and missed defensive assignments result in easy layups or dunks. Wittman made his players watch every defensive breakdown from their loss to the 76ers, who scored 65 points and shot 60.4 percent in the second half.

“When we were bad, we were so bad . . . and we were so soft, we couldn’t overcome it,” Wittman said. “We’ve just got to have that vibe of putting it together for 48 minutes and they’re capable of it. It’s something that fixable. From a coaching standpoint, you like that. When you think it’s unfixable, that’s when you’re in trouble.”

Newcomer Marcin Gortat, the 6-foot-11 center acquired last week from Phoenix, started in place of Nene on Friday and Wittman said he was willing to cut him some slack since he has yet to grasp the Wizards’ philosophies on the defensive end. Gortat admitted that while he still is learning, he has to play better.

“To stop a team, you need five guys. You need a whole team. It’s not always simple one-on-one,” Gortat said. “We’ve got to play together. It’s looks sometimes we have the first rotation, we miss the second rotation. Then we have the second and third and we miss the box out. We’ve just got to be committed to play defense. You’ve got to have pride.”

The Heat is coming off back-to-back losses to Philadelphia and Brooklyn and will be looking to get back on track against the struggling Wizards.

“They’re probably going to be fired up, but we should be fired up also. We lost two games that we feel like we should’ve won, so we should be just as hungry as they are,” forward Trevor Booker said. “We should be tired of losing. I know I’m tired of losing.”

 
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