Lackluster Defense at the Heart of Wizards' Struggles

The Wizards say scenes like this, where Warriors guard Jamal Crawford, left, drives past Andray Blatche, center, and Antawn Jamison for an easy basket, are all too common and at the center of their struggle to win games.
The Wizards say scenes like this, where Warriors guard Jamal Crawford, left, drives past Andray Blatche, center, and Antawn Jamison for an easy basket, are all too common and at the center of their struggle to win games. (By Marcio José Sanchez -- Associated Press)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Ivan Carter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 21, 2009

OAKLAND, Calif., Jan. 20 -- Pick a defense and the Washington Wizards have struggled with it lately: handling pick-and-rolls, stopping hot players, preventing wide-open three-point attempts, getting back in transition.

In the last three games, the Wizards (8-32) have allowed an average of 112 points while sandwiching ugly losses around a home win over the New York Knicks.

In Monday's 119-98 loss at Golden State, the Wizards broke down all over the place by allowing 13 three-pointers and many easy drives that led to layups.

The performance left interim coach Ed Tapscott angry and his players embarrassed. According to co-captain Antawn Jamison, the Wizards were fully prepared for back-to-back games against the Knicks and Monday's Martin Luther King Jr. Day matinee against the Warriors.

As they always do, Tapscott and lead assistant Randy Ayers outlined what the Warriors would do and stressed the defensive concepts to be executed. And then the Wizards went out and played with a lack of energy, often looked disjointed and disorganized, and never gave themselves a chance to build on Friday's home win over the Knicks.

"The coaches come in and preach it to us and we work on it every day," said Jamison, who contributed to the problem Monday by allowing Warriors guard Corey Maggette to drive by him for three first-half scores. "That's the toughest thing: We know what we're supposed to do. It's drilled in to you. Randy says we have to have someone in the lane helping out and make sure that if someone does get into that gap, we're there. And then, the lane is still open. We preach, we preach and we just don't find a way to go out there and carry it over from what we've been learning."

After three straight games against the Knicks and Warriors -- teams that love to push the ball to force a fast pace and create a high-scoring game -- the Wizards will face a Sacramento team that was averaging 98.6 points per game on 44.6 percent shooting entering Tuesday night's game against Denver.

That output places the Kings squarely in the middle of the NBA pack, but Tapscott's point to his players is that they must bring basic defensive principles to the table each night to have a chance to win.

The Knicks and Warriors "do put pressure on you to score, obviously, but it would be different if you would try to defend them with a little bit more passion, a little bit more discipline," Tapscott said. "Then you wouldn't feel the same pressure to keep pace, if you were getting a few stops. We couldn't get the stops, so you've got to blame us for that. If you know an offensive player is an accomplished scorer, then you can't let him sight the basket, get a shot off and then challenge a shot. It's just too late, and we were too late too many times."

Defense, and specifically opponent's field goal percentage, continues to be one of the single biggest determining factors in winning in the NBA.

Entering Tuesday's games, nine teams were allowing opponents to shoot better than 46 percent, including the Wizards and Kings. Only one of those teams -- the Portland Trail Blazers -- had a winning record.

The good news, if there is such a thing for a team that is marching toward the worst finish in franchise history, is that players are being accountable.

Case in point: fourth-year forward-center Andray Blatche had a strong statistical performance Monday by posting 22 points on 10-of-19 shooting with nine rebounds. That's the kind of statistical output Tapscott would take from Blatche every night. Yet Blatche was not satisfied because of the way the Wizards repeatedly broke down defensively.

"It is very disappointing," said Blatche, a natural forward who is playing center in the absence of the injured Brendan Haywood. "I am not really worried about my individual play. It is all about the team and all about getting wins. We just couldn't get the stops we needed. I feel more comfortable out there, my confidence is better, but I need to talk to Brendan and see how he was able to protect the rim like last year. He is a very smart player and always seems to be in the right place, and I need to figure out how to do the same to help the team. I need to try and protect the rim more."

That would help, but the team's defensive problems go far deeper.

"It's an individual thing," point guard Mike James said. "That's something where we have to look inside our own individual hearts and minds. We just need to be able to dig down deep and make the defensive plays we need or we aren't going to win games."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company