Smart, not typically known as an outside threat, had to take a step-back three-pointer, with both Troy Brown Jr. and Davis Bertans raising their arms. Smart missed, and the Wizards, much to their delight, got a stop.
This moment of defense was brought to you by Washington’s reliance on the zone.
“Especially early in the game, it really helped us slow them down,” Wizards forward CJ Miles said about the zone defense against Boston. “Make some guys take a lot more jumpers than they wanted to.”
Still, that one stop mattered little in the outcome of the game. Smart went on to make four of his eight attempts from beyond the arc. The Celtics scored at will on their way to a 140-133 win. And Washington, with the second-worst record in the Eastern Conference at 2-7, spent another game dependent on a zone defense that has, at best, produced mixed results.
“It’s habits,” all-star guard Bradley Beal said, diagnosing the team’s ailment on defense. “Habits, habits, habits. We got to have better habits, be locked in defensively. We got to be better IQ wise and play smart.”
This season, the Wizards have placed trust in the zone, in which defenders are assigned an area to cover instead of a player. Although zone defense is rare in the NBA because the defensive three-second rule dissuades big men from camping in the paint, the Wizards have used it 12.5 percent of the time under new defensive coordinator Michael Longabardi, according to Synergy Sports.
That is by far the most in the league, with the Toronto Raptors and Golden State Warriors at 4.5 percent and 4.3 percent, respectively. In contrast, the Los Angeles Lakers have faced zone defenses more than any team: 4.6 percent of the time.
So why has Washington counted on a scheme that other NBA teams merely sprinkle into defenses? The zone has been effective.
When Washington is in the zone, opponents have scored at least one point 39 percent of the time. But when the Wizards play man-to-man, opponents score 44 percent of the time. Also, when Washington focuses on an area rather than an individual player, opposing teams have shot only 41.8 percent.
“It works for us,” Beal said. “We’ve had games and stretches where we’ve got six, seven stops in a row from that zone. It confuses the offense. Guys get stagnant, but Boston did a good job of staying active and moving and putting, like, their guards in the high post, which really altered us in an effect.”
Though several Wizards gave full support of the scheme in Boston, the latest loss elevated the team’s defensive rating — points allowed per 100 possessions — to 114.6, second highest in the league.
The zone hasn’t solved every problem, in part because the Wizards don’t always communicate well. Players have suggested that they abandon some of the defensive ferociousness in the zone that they would display while playing man-to-man.
“It’s challenging because you have to communicate on a very high level,” backup center Moritz Wagner said. “Then the three-second rule obviously isn’t beneficial, but then it turns into man-man pretty quickly, and you’ve got to figure out when. So it’s a learning curve.”
Playing the zone, which is more often deployed at lower levels, also can be a mental adjustment for professionals. Miles, now in his 15th year, admits he hasn’t played much of it in his NBA career. Now he is trying to remember old habits from high school.
“I mean, it’s different for me just because I haven’t done it a lot,” Miles said. “I’m still learning so much about just — like, I know what to do, but it’s just like those are tendencies that you have that you get from playing man-to-man that kind of get lax when you play zone.
“I think we get off guys’ bodies and things like that when we’re in the zone,” Miles said. “I think we’re still learning to kind of still be locked into that, too.”
Neil Greenberg in Washington contributed to this report.