MEMPHIS — Only a month ago, the Washington Wizards' outlook still held promise and Dwight Howard’s declaration about Washington becoming a “top five” defensive team still made sense.
A lot has changed in a month — namely, the Wizards started playing real games and their actual defensive effort has proved to be anything but special.
Forget “top five.” Ahead of Tuesday night’s 107-95 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies, which capped a lengthy road trip, the Wizards ranked among the lowest quintet of NBA teams in rebounding, defensive rating and opponent three-point field goal percentage, to name a few. Overall, Washington had surrendered the most points in the league.
Even against Memphis, one of the worst offensive teams in the league, the Wizards couldn’t keep the Grizzlies from scoring when they needed to. Though several teams have been on a scoring bonanza at the start of the season, the Grizzlies (4-2) had averaged only 103.0 points per game. They surpassed that mark with less than two minutes remaining against Washington.
The Wizards trailed by 19 points but trimmed their deficit to four in the closing quarter. But the team’s defense did not hold up against a Grizzlies surge that included four three-pointers in the fourth. Beyond the defense, Washington also shot poorly (43.1 percent) and committed 20 turnovers. For this effort, the team fell to 1-6.
John Wall finished with a game-high 22 points to go with five rebounds and seven assists, but he had nine of those turnovers. Bradley Beal added 17 points and seven assists.
The lack of defense — combined with the losses — unearthed locker room friction and frustration during the team’s longest road trip of the season, five games spread across the Western Conference. On Friday, after a loss to the surprising Sacramento Kings, team leaders Beal and Wall offered that personal agendas within the roster have supplanted the sacrifice of playing team defense.
Coach Scott Brooks has since downplayed those comments and by the morning of the matchup in Memphis, he wanted to see more action — from all involved — on the defensive front.
“We got to be a better defensive team. We’ve talked about it,” Brooks said. “We have to be able to get back in transition. We’ve talked about that. And we have to rebound the basketball. We’ve talked about that. It’s about doing now. There’s no more talking.”
Howard hasn’t been able to back up his words. Since Oct. 15, the center, who missed all of preseason with an injury stemming from a buttocks muscle, has spent the early stretch of the regular season getting into game shape. At least one person close to the situation projected Howard making his season debut Friday when the Wizards return from their road trip to host the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Even without the interior presence of Howard, a former three-time defensive player of the year, the Wizards' defense shouldn’t be “horrendous,” as backup guard Austin Rivers so passionately described the performance after the team allowed 136 points to the Los Angeles Clippers.
“We’ve got to start playing desperate. We have to start playing with a sense of urgency, and I guess that’s the key,” Rivers said following the 32-point loss to the Clippers. “We’re not playing with the urgency as a group, not one player in particular. That’s what Coach has reiterated to us, and we’re playing like we’re just going to figure it out.”
On Saturday, Washington’s waning sense of urgency showed through three quarters as the Clippers built toward their blowout win. The five-man group of Wall, Beal, Otto Porter Jr., Ian Mahinmi and Jeff Green, who played the third quarter in place of Markieff Morris, who left the game after taking an elbow to his head, allowed Los Angeles to connect on 64.3 percent of its shots from the field.
As individual defenders, the Wizards weren’t much better in keeping their own man from scoring, according to statistics from NBA.com. Beal forced four turnovers but Clippers players made 4 of 5 three-point field goals attempted against him. Though Mahinmi held center Marcin Gortat to just four points, the Clippers scored 40 while he was on the floor in this big-man matchup. Green, meanwhile, contested the fewest shots (three) among the Wizards players who logged at least 20 minutes.
“I told the guys, we still have over 90 percent of the season left,” Brooks said about the prospects of shoring up the defensive dam and piling up some much-needed wins. “We can play better. We have to play better and we know we will play better but it’s all of us. Myself, I need to coach better. The players need to play better. And we’re in it together. I know sometimes the narrative is out there that we’re not in it together.
“I’ve been around this group for a while now,” Brooks continued. “They’re in it together. But we got to be able to do it.”