During Washington’s early-season defensive woes, the depth of their vulnerability showed. In the Nov. 3 game against the Cleveland Cavaliers, LeBron James hammered the Wizards, but the sight of him backing down defenders, shooting over their hands and scoring 57 points did not bother Coach Scott Brooks as much as it did watching his team fail to contain the Cavaliers’ fast break.
“We were giving up too many transition points,” Brooks said, referring to the Wizards’ first eight games. “I keep going back to LeBron’s historic game, 57, but they got 32 fast break points. It was a layup line for them and [since then] we did much better.”
Officially, the Cavaliers were awarded just two fast break points in that 130-122 win. There often can be a wide schism between what the game’s official scorer views as a fast break attempt compared to the discerning head coach who may count any quick buckets scored early in the shot clock after a miss or a make. Since that wake-up call, the Wizards (9-5) have adjusted their defense, a correction that has led to victories.
Washington has won five of its past six games — the outlier, the Nov. 7 humbling to the Dallas Mavericks — while holding each opponent to fewer than 100 points. The Wizards are 6-0 when keeping a team under the century mark.
“That is our go to,” Bradley Beal said after the Wizards’ 102-93 win over the Miami Heat on Wednesday. “When we do that, it is proven. We have success keeping teams under 100 and getting wins. When we continue to have that defensive mind-set we are a really good team. We showed a lot of glimpses of it [Wednesday].”
Also, on the official box scores, the five vanquished opponents have not come close to matching the layup procession that Brooks counted the night against Cleveland. On Wednesday, Washington held the Heat to without a fast break field goal until point guard Goran Dragic scored a layup with 49.5 seconds remaining. Not coincidentally, Dragic, who is averaging a team-high 19.9 points and finished with 21 against Washington, was limited to only four points through the first half.
Through this defensive revival, Washington has accepted the sacrifice of an extra offensive possession to get back on the other end. When a shot goes up, instead of several players crashing the glass to clean up a potential miss, more often than not four teammates are transitioning to play defense. This has been a Brooks staple through his coaching career, imploring his teams that it’s not worth getting caught behind the ball and giving up two or three points just to sell out for a second possession.
“We’ve been getting back with four defenders,” Brooks said, “so hopefully we can just keep doing that.”
Through the Wizards’ four-game winning streak, the team has a defensive rating of 95 — compared to 104.7 through the first eight games of the season. While the overall improvement reflects in the team commitment to play defense, the Wizards also have taken on the identity of their leaders.
During this same successful stretch, John Wall has the Wizards’ best defensive rating (91.6) among the seven players who log the most minutes. A defensive rating is a statistic designed to demonstrate a player’s efficiency at preventing the other team from scoring points. Wall’s individual effort shines when he’s in hot pursuit in transition. On Wednesday, Wall added two more blocked shots to his season collection and stands above every guard in the NBA with 17. Also, Beal ranks not far behind Wall with his 94.3 defensive rating as he has led the team in minutes over the last four games (34.5 per game).
“Everything starts from John and Brad,” center Marcin Gortat said recently. ‘These two have been much better defensively and all of a sudden, the whole team is playing much better defense because everybody is following the leaders.”
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