TORONTO — A few weeks before the start of the playoffs, Washington Wizards Coach Scott Brooks lounged on a courtside seat inside Toyota Center in Houston and called over Kelly Oubre Jr. Brooks wanted to make a point, so he played a mental game with the Wizards’ youngest player in the locker room.
Seated side by side with gazes fixed on the court, the two took turns checking off all the important things that make an NBA player. Oubre said professionalism was the No. 1 priority, then Brooks shared a characteristic, and they went back and forth until they had created a long list that eventually drilled home the purpose of the game: defense over almost everything else.
“Just coaching,” Brooks would say later when asked about the exercise he shared with Oubre before the Wizards’ April 3 game.
“As a young player, what you hear and what you’re being told is not what you really need to do,” Brooks said. “My job is to make sure he knows what he really needs to do. When he doesn’t focus on defense, that’s when I get frustrated because you don’t want to be known as the guy who has potential to guard.”
Fast forward to the Wizards’ 114-106 playoff-opening loss to the Toronto Raptors on Saturday, and Oubre again took a courtside seat near his coach. This time, however, Brooks was not trying to teach a lesson, but rather send a message.
Oubre played 10 fewer minutes than his season average in Game 1. He checked Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan for 12 possessions, but Brooks felt better about Otto Porter Jr.’s defensive presence on DeRozan, thus giving him the primary assignment for 37 possessions. During Oubre’s 16-minute stint, he matched up against Delon Wright, CJ Miles and even saw two possessions against big man Pascal Siakam. This limited time revealed much about Oubre: the depth of his potential as a relentless and varied defender who has a future in this league, but also the flaws of a young player who still needs to grow in the game.
“I think everybody needs to be a little better,” Brooks said Sunday about the team’s defense. “Kelly’s right in the same group of all of us. We need to be a little bit better. We’re playing against the best team in the East. We can’t make those mistakes.
“Minutes are going to be game to game,” Brooks said, referencing Oubre. “I’ve got to go with my gut, and Tomas [Satoransky] has played well. I thought Otto did a pretty good job on DeRozan, so he got a few more minutes on him.”
When Oubre checked into the game in the first quarter, he began to make life miserable for DeRozan. He stole DeRozan’s pass, then glued himself to the all-star while navigating Toronto’s screens. Late in the quarter, Oubre drew offensive fouls against Siakam and Wright, getting more fired up with each turnover that he had created.
The opening salvo of intense focus and emotions, however, did not last. By the fourth quarter, Oubre tracked Miles, Toronto’s second-unit marksman, who made one three-pointer during this matchup. Then, with Toronto up by four points, a turnover by Oubre allowed Miles to run as the trailer in transition and hit another three. The Raptors went ahead 103-96 with 6:28 remaining, the Wizards called a timeout, and Oubre returned to the bench for the rest of the game.
No one player could take the blame because there were defensive mistakes all over the Air Canada Centre floor. The Raptors hit 16 of 30 from beyond the arc, and several players expressed after the game how they did not expect Wright (18 points with three three-pointers) to be so effective. Even so, Oubre often draws the ire of his coach because he flashes so much skill on the defensive end but negates the potential with youthful miscues.
Oubre made 1 of 4 shots, a three-pointer, but looked past Game 1 and saw the big picture of who he needs to be in the NBA.
“I’m going to go out there and do my job. For me, [averaging nearly] 12 points this season was an added bonus. I’ve never done that. It’s only up from here. I realize I’m capable of competing and being a force in the league,” Oubre said. “I’m 22 years old. I’m going out here every day and I’m competing against grown-ass men with families who are really, like, actually trying to feed their families. I’m just more motivated than ever, man, because I want to be great. I want to be good on offense. I want to be good on defense, but my job right now on this team is to be the best defensive player that I can be. The offense will come. I’m not worried about it.”