Wizards learn to compensate for injuries with depth, defense

New addition Randy Foye has made an immediate contribution.
New addition Randy Foye has made an immediate contribution. (John Mcdonnell/the Washington Post)
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By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 2, 2009

Caron Butler is expected to return from a bruised left kneecap on Tuesday in Cleveland, and Antawn Jamison, sidelined with a right shoulder injury, will make his season debut some time in the next few weeks. But through the first three games of the season, the Washington Wizards (2-1) have shown that even without an all-star forward or two, they can succeed through double D: Depth and defense.

Neither had been present much in past seasons, when injuries left the Wizards without talented veterans, and an indifference to anything other than offense shortened their win totals and had them vacationing in May.

President Ernie Grunfeld addressed his team's depth by trading for Randy Foye and Mike Miller and signing Fabricio Oberto, ensuring that when new Coach Flip Saunders had to "change on the fly" he wouldn't have to rely on an unprepared or unproven youngster to fill the void.

"Veteran players, they know what it's about and they've been there," Saunders said. "That's why Ernie and the front office did what we did."

Those three new additions were in the starting lineup for the Wizards' 123-104 win against the New Jersey Nets on Saturday. Oberto, making his third start at power forward in place of Jamison, did some dirty work and handed out five assists. Foye, a combo guard, started at shooting guard and provided steady playmaking and scoring with 17 points and eight assists; while Miller, who slid into Butler's spot at small forward, grabbed a team-high 11 rebounds and hit two three-pointers to finish with nine points.

"We have a lot of depth. Everybody can contribute," said Gilbert Arenas, who benefited from the spacing and screens provided by Foye, Miller and Oberto to scorch the Nets for 32 points on just 13 shots in three quarters. "We get everybody back, we can be even deadlier. Right now, we just have to maintain until Antawn and Caron get back."

When Butler and Jamison return, they will join a team that has bought into Saunders's defensive schemes in the early going, something few believed was possible. In some ways, the Wizards are exceeding Saunders's expectations.

Saunders said he hoped the team could hold opponents to just 44 percent shooting, but the Wizards have held Dallas, Atlanta and New Jersey to just 42.3 percent shooting and 29.8 percent shooting on three-pointers.

Saunders has had solid defenses in previous stops in Minnesota and Detroit, where he also benefited from the presence of all-defensive team players such as Kevin Garnett, Ben Wallace, Rasheed Wallace and Tayshaun Prince. Center Brendan Haywood and reserve guard DeShawn Stevenson, the Wizards' best individual defenders, are back healthy, but the players also credit Saunders's system, which forces each player to help his teammate so that no man is left on an island.

"We like more of a family," said Andray Blatche, who leads the team with four blocked shots. "I don't want to let somebody down or have my family upset with me."

Saunders also wants the Wizards to limit the number of uncontested shots. "Even if somebody gets a shot, you want somebody to run at them, get their hand up. Good teams are going to shoot a worse percentage when you do that," Haywood said. "That's one thing Flip has always stressed. Playing defense the right way. Getting to your spots. When you're in the right spot, it helps everybody out, because I know where I'm supposed to go and the next man knows where he's supposed to go. We're doing great with our concepts."

The Wizards also appear to be rotating better and protecting the paint, with intelligent defenders such as Oberto, who came from San Antonio's suffocating system and isn't afraid to deliver a hard foul. Stevenson said a lot of the Wizards' improvement is because of Haywood, who anchored a solid defense in 2007-08 before a wrist injury robbed him of all but six games last season. "He does an awesome job talking," Stevenson said. "I feel comfortable pressuring the ball because I know I got a center back there talking, that's going to be in the right position."

After holding Dallas to 91 points in the season opener, the Wizards have allowed their past two opponents to top triple digits. But the Nets were assisted by a fast-paced game and a garbage-time fourth quarter run, while the Hawks got 31 of their 100 points from the foul line.

"We're like the typical counter-puncher. You punch us first, we'll duck and miss and hit you in the rib," Saunders said. "We were doing that literally, that's how [Atlanta] got 34 free throw [attempts]. But I know this, it's easier to tell someone to be less aggressive than to try to get someone to be aggressive. Right now, we're building the basis of our defense, and hopefully that will be able to carry us through this stretch."

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