There is a certain rudimentary element to the preseason, in which NBA teams return to the most basic of drills. The Washington Wizards are no exception, devoting parts of practices over the past two weeks to simple defense: working on closeouts and contesting all shots, cutting off an opponent at different angles and embracing the lost art of boxing out for rebounds.
“We’re going back. I’m sure most teams start off trying to tackle all the fundamentals of the defensive concepts that you’re trying to implement but we are going through all of them and hopefully we take some pride in it more,” Coach Scott Brooks said. “We can score the ball with anybody in the league. We became a good team last year by being able to do both. If we can stay the same offensively, I’ll be extremely happy. But if we stay the same defensively, I don’t think that’s going to be good for us.”
As a scattered defensive team in the 2016-17 season, Washington has required the extra attention in practices. Although the Wizards soared among the best in the league in scoring 109.2 points per game, they were ultimately grounded by an ambivalence on the defensive end. It showed in their multiple efforts; a character trait quantified by the 13.8 second-chance points allowed as the Wizards struggled to complete defensive stands. Another revealing statistic: The team allowed opponents to make 46.8 percent of three-point attempts within the first three seconds of the shot clock. Those early daggers displayed the damage done by both second-scoring opportunities (in which an opponent grabbed an offensive rebound then kicked the ball out to an open shooter behind the arc) as well as quick transition threes.
To fix that problem and to better defensively align in today’s run-and-gun game, the Wizards have worked on matching up in transition. Not just focusing on their particular man, but locating the closest offensive player and sticking to him. Players must talk and trust one another, especially the bigs, who are not necessarily directed to defend the rim in this situation but rather stop the three if they’re near the arc.
“If we’re trailing the play, we want to make sure that we don’t just run to the ball or run to the basket,” 7-footer Jason Smith said. ‘We’ve got to run to the open man so people don’t get open threes on us.”
Every defensive stop presents a chance to get the ball quickly to John Wall, Bradley Beal or Otto Porter Jr. When the Wizards push, they’re nearly unstoppable — but to run, they must rebound. So in practices, players have been contesting every shot — even ones attempted by the coaching staff — then finding the nearest body to box out. Remembering: first we hit, then rebound. These reminders seem elementary, but also critical for a team requiring a defensive reset.
“We definitely need to rebound the ball better,” Brooks said. “I would say we did a decent job of contesting the first shot making them miss but [opponents] have a high percentage of makes on their offensive rebounds; contesting shots is always a big one for me. If we can contest shots and rebound, then we’ll be happy with our defense.”
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