Of late, the Washington Wizards' defense has been the equivalent of a strainer under a water pipe.
The Wizards are giving up 100.2 points per game this season, which ranks 19th in the league. In the four games since Michael Jordan took over as part owner and president of basketball operations, Washington has been especially offensive on defense, allowing an average of 112 points and losing three times.
"There are spurts in games when we don't get back on defense and we get taken advantage of," center Jahidi White said.
Over the past 10 games, Washington (13-30) has allowed at least 104 points nine times, winning just twice. Their margin of defeat over the past 10 games has been just more than 10 points.
The Cleveland Cavaliers hope to build on their 97.5 points-per-game scoring average when they play Washington tonight at MCI Center. Jordan is not expected to be in attendance and has seen only one of the Wizards' games in person, the team's 104-86 loss to the Dallas Mavericks on Jan. 19, the night he was hired.
Washington has lost to Cleveland twice this year by a total of five points. The Cavaliers have averaged 103.5 points against the Wizards.
Breakdowns and slow rotations are occasional flaws that allow opponents easy baskets, Coach Gar Heard said. The Wizards' biggest defensive drawback is the multiple turnovers that lead to easy transition baskets, Heard said.
"Every game we give up 20-plus points on turnovers," Heard said. "That's 20 points you don't get. . . . Most of our turnovers, and I've watched a lot of it on our tapes, lead to layups."
Washington's average of 17.8 turnovers per game ranks fourth worst in the NBA. Coupled with the frequency of the mistakes is the timeliness of the turnovers, which often come in spurts that allow other teams to go on decisive scoring binges.
In the third quarter of their 120-105 loss to Toronto Wednesday, the Wizards committed seven turnovers, which led to 13 points. Five of those turnovers came in a 13-1 run in which the Raptors broke open a tie game.
It was just the latest in a string of game-costing stretches in which Washington loses control of the game by losing control of the ball.
"A lot of our turnovers are unforced because we try to make great passes instead of making simple passes," Heard said. "It's a lot prettier to make a scoring pass than to pass the ball around the horn a couple times and make a jump shot. We try to force it in too much in the paint and that's the toughest pass to make."
Additionally, the Wizards' defense has been consistently poor of late. Toronto shot better than 50 percent in every quarter in its recent victory over the Wizards. The Atlanta Hawks shot 64 percent in the first quarter and 48 percent in the decisive third quarter in their 111-93 pummeling of Washington last Saturday.
The high shooting percentages are a direct result of poor transition defense, Heard said.
Opposing teams seem fully aware of the Wizards' defensive problems. More and more of them are pressing Washington with full- and half-court traps, trying to force turnovers. When the Wizards do settle into their half-court offense, opponents almost always have a player dashing downcourt once Washington puts up a shot.
In both situations, Washington's players have been slow to react if they fail to score, allowing easy layups and highlight-film dunks.
"We don't have court balance," Heard said. "If Rod [Strickland] is penetrating, the [shooting guard and small forward] should be back. . . . We have to get back and play solid defense and don't gamble. Make them shoot jump shots. I'd rather see them make a jump shot than get dunks."
To compound problems, Heard said his players try to answer opponents' transition baskets by quickly launching jump shots. When Wizards players miss shots and don't get rebounds, opponents have players in position to receive long outlet passes.
"Normally we're in position to run a play and the big guys are usually under the basket," Heard said. "So if you quick shoot the ball, the big guys aren't usually under there, and if we don't get the rebound the other team is going to run out. . . . We have to work on getting back and playing solid defense."
Wizards Notes: Power forward Michael Smith (strained right elbow) did not practice yesterday but might start tonight. If he does not, Juwan Howard will move to power forward and Tracy Murray will start at small forward. . . . Starting shooting guard Mitch Richmond (broken right rib) did conditioning and shooting drills yesterday and might come back for Tuesday's game in Cleveland.
Wizards vs. Cleveland Cavaliers
* Where: MCI Center.
* When: 7 p.m.
* Radio: WTEM-980.
* Tickets: Available.
* Records: Wizards 13-30, Cavaliers 18-25.
* Injuries: Wizards--F Michael Smith (strained right elbow) is probable; G Mitch Richmond (fractured right rib) and C Calvin Booth (strained right hamstring) are on the injured list. Cavaliers--C Zydrunas Ilgauskas (left foot surgery), G Trajan Langdon (right knee surgery scheduled) are on the injured list.