That October night in Oakland when superstar Stephen Curry sauteed the Washington Wizards and shimmied his way to 51 points, the season was still young but the team’s defensive problems were only beginning.
Following the Oct. 24 contest against the Golden State Warriors through the next 33 games ending in December, Washington allowed the fourth-highest three-point percentage (36.8), ranked 28th in defensive rating (112.5) and surrendered fewer points (115.8) than only one other team in the league, the lottery-bound Atlanta Hawks.
Curry didn’t break the Wizards, but his performance — hitting 11 three-pointers and only needing three quarters to reach the half-century mark before mercifully sitting out the rest of the game — did expose their deficiencies. After the Warriors' 144-122 win, Bradley Beal, in a flat tone bereft of levity, responded to a question on what the Wizards could have done better to defend Curry.
“Probably foul the s--- out of him,” Beal said.
Maybe the Wizards won’t have to revert to the defensive-centric play of the 1980s to stop Curry on Thursday night during the rematch at Capital One Arena. They’ll just need to continue playing and defending like it’s 2019.
Since the new year, the Wizards (20-26) have won six of nine because they’ve improved their defense. While Washington has played as a middle-of-pack team in defending the three-point arc (opponents are shooting .363, at 17th in the NBA) in January, it has soared from third-worst in defensive rating to the top three (104.7).
Furthermore, the Wizards are defending without using Beal’s desperation tactic — only committing 18.4 fouls per game in January, sixth-fewest in the NBA.
“Early in the year we were thinking we could outscore everybody,” Beal said Wednesday. “It’s almost the whole trend of the league, you see everybody putting up crazy points. Ultimately with us, we just couldn’t get stops. It was guarding the three-point line, guarding off the dribble, it was like no type of stop possible.
“The thing now, we just figured out that’s the only way we’re going to win is if we defend for 48 minutes and understand the importance of it,” Beal continued. “Understanding that everybody has a job. You have to be willing to help the next man too.”
The Wizards haven’t exactly ditched their old defensive schemes — although Coach Scott Brooks said there have been “a couple of things we’ve changed.” Defenders still switch when the matchup demands it and the Wizards' second-most used lineup in January (consisting of the four natural wings in Beal, Tomas Satoransky, Jeff Green and Otto Porter Jr., along with center Thomas Bryant) employs the strategy. But the Wizards believe the enhanced defense comes from small, individual improvements.
“Our defense is really good and me, as a defensive guy, I really enjoy what we’re doing right now,” said backup center Ian Mahinmi, who has appeared in eight games in January and produced a 99.6 defensive rating. “Those [perimeter defenders] are playing really, really hard. They’re buying me an extra second. I’m at my best when I can kind of see stuff coming, when stuff slows down and I’m able to cover gaps and help my teammates. That’s exactly what’s going on right now, things are slowing down on defense.”
The challenge gets considerably harder with Thursday night’s arrival of the two-time defending NBA champion Warriors (33-14), led by Curry, Klay Thompson, as well as two-time NBA Finals MVP Kevin Durant and even the newly-activated DeMarcus Cousins.
“Any given night, one of those guys can do something that the league doesn’t see often,” Brooks said. “Curry makes 11 threes against us and all of them were like — he was almost like I’m going to outdo myself the next shot I take up and he was making them. KD, I’ve seen enough of him. Any night he can go for 50. And then Klay, he’s doing things and you’re in awe.
“They’ve got a special group,” Brooks said. “That’s why they’re defending champions multiple years in a row and we’re going to have to play extremely well but we’re up for the challenge.”