By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 3, 2011; 12:29 AM
Perhaps the most frustrating facet of the Washington Wizards' continued slog through the 2010-11 season is that the team has been playing better basketball, especially on defense, in recent weeks. The results are not evident in the win column, but they are certainly recognizable in points allowed, defensive field goal percentage and point differential.
The Wizards weren't necessarily looking to turn around the season when they dealt away the former face of the franchise, Gilbert Arenas, to Orlando for Rashard Lewis on Dec. 18; the primary goal was to better clear the slate in order to rebuild around John Wall. So while the team's 2-6 record since making the trade is still unsettling, the dramatic changes on the defensive end have been startling.
In the past eight games, the Wizards (8-24) have allowed just one opponent to reach triple digits after their foes scored at least 100 points in 16 of the first 24 games. The Wizards are surrendering just 91 points per game since the trade, compared with giving up 105.8 before. To put that in perspective, the Wizards have essentially gone from being the Golden State Warriors (who rank 27th in the league at 106.1 points allowed per game) to being better than the Boston Celtics (who surrender a league-best 91.1 points per game).
"What we've strived to build is a foundation, our defense, and it has been solid for us," Coach Flip Saunders said. "We've been working hard to really stress that and I think our guys have bought into it. I think guys are getting more comfortable with what they're doing. It's taken a little time, but they've bought into it. And I think that's been huge. I hope we'll continue to do that."
Saunders has always believed that points allowed can be deceptive, since teams can easily slow down the pace to bring down numbers. He has always measured defensive efficiency through field goal percentage, and the Wizards have made strides in that department, as well. Since the trade, they have limited opponents to just 44.6 percent shooting - which would rank in the top 10 in the league - compared with 47.8 in the first 24 games.
"We're sticking with the game plan," Hilton Armstrong said. "Coach has been telling us to do things for a while and earlier in the season, we wasn't staying with it the way we should've been. I think as the season progressed, our defense has been progressing, getting better. We listen to him. We're doing what he says and going with it. Everybody is starting to get on the same page."
The trade also coincided with the return of veteran forward Josh Howard from a left knee injury. Howard's presence has helped raise the intensity on the defensive end of the floor, but Saunders also pointed out the increased size of the starting five - with the 6-foot-7 Nick Young sliding over to shooting guard and the 6-10 Lewis at small forward - making it difficult for teams to get off clean looks.
"We are playing pretty good defense. We are playing team defense. We just have to continue playing team defense," said Lewis, who is just 1-5 in a Wizards uniform. "Defense can get your offense going. When you're coming down and having to set up at half court every time, it's hard to score. I think with a point guard like John Wall, if we can get as many stops as possible and he can run out and get as many easy baskets, we have a better chance of winning that way.
"You can definitely see the team's potential," he said. "We will continue to get better every time we step out."
The Wizards still suffer inopportune breakdowns on defense, but the primary reason the team has struggled to record wins has been an inability to score enough points. They weren't exactly an offensive juggernaut with Arenas contributing his still-team-best 17.3 points per game, as they averaged just 97.2 points in the first 24 games. But they are scoring just 90.8 points the past eight games, failing to score more than 90 points four times. In their past two losses, to Indiana and New Orleans, the Wizards had 39 turnovers, which limited their own offensive possessions and resulted in 46 points for their opponents.
"We have to get our offense to catch up," Saunders said. "We are making progress defending overall and at times we have rebounded well. We just got to get to the point where our offense doesn't beat us."
The Wizards' point differential is just minus-0.2 over this eight-game stretch - with only two of the losses decided by more than 10 points. It's a considerable improvement from their 8.6 differential in the first 24 games, when 10 of their 18 losses were decided by double digits. "We're picking it up," Young said. "We feel we're in mostly every game. We could be right there. We keep coming out with different routines to get each other going. We're starting to have each other's back now."
But they continue to wait for more wins.