SALT LAKE CITY — The Washington Wizards sharpened their defense by matching up against an offensive-minded team that loves to score — themselves.
On the rare opportunities the team is able to practice, players break into half-court games in which the team that scores keeps possession, just like on the playground. For those shooting-starved Wizards on the opposing side, they must defend simply to ensure they won’t get run off the court.
“Our team can shoot,” Bradley Beal said Monday. “So if you don’t get a stop, you’re not going to get the ball.”
While it may be oversimplifying matters to credit the premise of “make it, take it” for strengthening Washington’s defense, there has been a stronger, team-wide focus on the perimeter. Washington entered Monday night’s late game at Utah with the best three-point defense in the NBA, holding opponents to 32.7 percent shooting.
“We realized that with our team it’s easier to guard ourselves,” Beal said. “We compete each and every day to be able to run guys off the line, and [that] forces us to get out our comfort zones a little bit. When we take it to the game, it’s just natural.”
Over the past dozen games, the Wizards (12-10) have held opponents to 43.1 percent shooting from the field, tied for the best mark in the league. While the team allowed an average of 113 points in its two most recent losses after all-star John Wall was sidelined, Washington has given up the second-lowest points-per-game average in regulation (98.1) over the same 12-game stretch.
This can be traced to Washington’s improvement along the perimeter, where wings and big men alike have accepted a greater commitment to defending three-point shots.
“It was important for us to realize that threes hurt,” Beal said. “We love threes. Those are daggers to other teams and those are daggers to us, if they’re able to get them off and especially if they’re consistently hitting. That’s never a good sign. That gets a team going, that gives them confidence. As much as we can, we just try to take that away from them. We’re doing a good job right now of doing it. … In the past, we’ve been terrible at it.”
As evidence of his continued growth as an all-around player, Beal contests more three-point shots than any other player in the league (6.3) and opponents are hitting only 28.3 percent on the attempts he is defending. Beal likes to use his length and get a hand up, if only as a flyby to disrupt the shooter. He remains disciplined enough to get back into the play to contest opponents who pump fake then pull up for a long two.
“I’ve always been impressed with Brad’s defense from last season on,” Coach Scott Brooks said. “When you just play against a player and watch him on film and see him twice a year, you don’t know all the important things that he does but he impressed me last year. He’s a two-way player, and it’s only going to continue to improve.
“All of our perimeters are doing a good job. It’s just not one guy,” Brooks continued. “You have to be able to guard three-point shooters now.”
Center Marcin Gortat defends 1.8 three-points attempts per game and though that may seem like a minuscule number in comparison to the avalanche of deep shots a guard might face, it’s a lot more than he had to contest at the beginning of his career.
“Our philosophy has changed over the last season and a half,” Brooks said. “We want to make sure that we’re not giving up transition threes. That’s been some of our biggest improvements. Our bigs have done a great job of getting back and matching up to a man and not worrying about guarding the paint if nobody’s there, which has been since the game invented — that’s what a big would do, run back to the paint and protect the basket.
“If they didn’t participate in it,” Brooks said of big men Gortat and Ian Mahinmi, “we wouldn’t be as good as we are from the three. Hopefully that continues.”
In Utah, threes rain from an unlikely source. Rookie Donovan Mitchell scored 41 points, a Jazz franchise high for a first-year player, while lofting 25 shots Friday against New Orleans. Mitchell’s 6-for-12 shooting from beyond the arc elevated him into an elite class: He became the first rookie since Stephen Curry to knock down five or more three-pointers in consecutive games. Over the last five games, Mitchell has averaged a team-best 21.8 points on 46.8 shooting, taking eight threes a game.
“That’s a lot of threes,” Brooks said. “I can’t remember a rookie taking that many threes in a four-game stretch.”
Even though 7-foot-1 center Rudy Gobert was set to return to the Jazz lineup Monday after missing the past 11 games with a knee injury, the Wizards may still center on Mitchell. Once again, Beal will be busy around the perimeter.
“I definitely take pride in it,” Beal said of his defense. “It speaks volumes to our commitment on that end of the floor.”
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