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Wizards' Defense Shows It Is Serious

Wizards 102, Mavericks 84

The Wizards' Brendan Haywood pressures a Dirk Nowitzki shot. Dallas shot 41.3 percent.
The Wizards' Brendan Haywood pressures a Dirk Nowitzki shot. Dallas shot 41.3 percent. (By Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 22, 2008; Page E01

Even when the Washington Wizards occasionally put together excellent stretches of winning basketball in recent seasons, Coach Eddie Jordan's team was seldom considered a serious contender because of shortcomings on defense.

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This season, the Wizards are stacking up wins with a formula that includes feisty defense, consistent rebounding and a level of toughness that suggests that Jordan's bunch should be taken very seriously in a thin Eastern Conference.

The latest evidence was on display yesterday as the Wizards dispatched the Dallas Mavericks, 102-84, in front of a sellout crowd at Verizon Center during a rare matinee that coincided with celebrations honoring Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

The statistics were impressive as the Wizards held Dallas to 41.3 percent shooting, turned 16 turnovers into 25 points and repeatedly forced the Mavericks to take difficult shots down the stretch.

The Wizards (22-17) are 6-0 when holding an opponent to fewer than 85 points after not holding an opponent under 85 points all last season. Also, the Wizards have held nine of their past 11 foes to fewer than 100 points and they are giving up 96.4 points per game after allowing 104.9 a game last season.

Then again, Jordan likes to say that he's not a huge "numbers guy" and prefers to use words such as "grit," "toughness" and "passion" when talking about a team that has beaten Dallas twice and also owns a pair of wins over the Boston Celtics.

"I don't talk about numbers so much," Jordan said. "If you behave the right way, and you do things the right way, the numbers take care of themselves. I think that our behavior and our demeanors are in the right place at both ends. We are being nastier and grittier defensively, and offensively we know how to execute and we know how to share."

Even without three-time all-star guard Gilbert Arenas, who is hoping to return after the all-star break (Feb. 14-18), the Wizards can still put up plenty of points and knock down shots in key moments.

Caron Butler led the way yesterday with 25 points, 9 rebounds, 5 assists and 5 steals, Antawn Jamison added 23 points and eight rebounds and DeShawn Stevenson (18 points) came up with one of the key plays of the game when he took a pass from Andray Blatche and made a three-pointer with 4 minutes 10 seconds remaining.

The shot gave the Wizards an 89-76 lead. After Dallas guard Devin Harris answered with a three-pointer, Butler effectively sealed the victory when he made a three-pointer over the outstretched arm of Dallas forward Dirk Nowitzki, who finished with 21 points, 11 rebounds and 6 assists but was never allowed to dominate the game.

Moments later, Stevenson made another three-pointer, this one from 28 feet. Harris reacted by looking up into the rafters with an expression of exasperation.

"They are getting after it pretty good right now," Dallas Coach Avery Johnson said. "They are playing good basketball. We had them deep in the shot clock and Stevenson launches two three-pointers on us. They are getting loose balls and making forced shots. Even when our defense was good, they made us pay."

The Wizards have now won five of six and seven of their past nine games. Given the wins over Boston and yesterday's victory over the previously hot Mavericks, the Wizards perhaps are playing the most impressive basketball in the league. If they keep it up, perceptions about their lack of defensive fortitude might have to be reevaluated.

At the very least, it is now possible for a Wizards player to talk about defense without causing fans to roll their eyes and say something along the lines of "yeah, right."

"Our big thing is defense right now," Butler said. "We are playing at a very high level defensively. When our offense isn't going, we don't let that dictate the outcome of the game. We are letting our defense dictate our offense."

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