Wizards’ de­fen­sive pos­ture

Washington has held eight straight op­po­nents to less than 100 points.

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - BY MICHAEL LEE leem@wash­post.com

Brook­lyn Nets for­ward Kris Humphries swung the ball high above his head, look­ing for a place to pass when Washington Wizards re­serve Chris Sin­gle­ton swiped and knocked the ball away. Be­fore Humphries and team­mate C. J. Wat­son moved to­ward the loose ball, John Wall was al­ready off to the races, scoop­ing it up and dunk­ing with two hands.

Nets guard Joe John­son tried to an­swer with a floater in the lane, but Trevor Ariza was there to con­test and force him into a miss. Af­ter John­son grabbed the re­bound, Ariza, Sin­gle­ton and Kevin Seraphin triple-teamed him and he got rid of the ball to Humphries. Sin­gle­ton re­cov­ered and tied up Humphries, forc­ing a jump ball that Sin­gle­ton even­tu­ally won.

The Wizards were swarm­ing Fri­day night at Ver­i­zon Cen­ter, ha­rass­ing the Nets into three turnovers and 12 con­sec­u­tive missed shots to start the sec­ond quar­ter of their 89-74 vic­tory. They stretched a one-point lead to 18 be­fore all-star cen­ter Brook Lopez fi­nally scored with 3 min­utes 36 sec­onds left in the first half.

“We’re ev­ery­where, it seems like,” Sin­gle­ton said af­ter the Wizards lim­ited Brook­lyn to a sea­son-low 11 points on 4-of-22 shoot­ing in the sec­ond quar­ter and 32.9 per­cent shoot­ing for the en­tire game.

The Nets be­came the eighth straight team to score fewer than 100 points against the Wizards (14-35), who have won 10 of their past 17 games be­cause of a de­fen­sive foun­da­tion that was set long be­fore Wall made his sea­son de­but last month. An ane­mic and of­ten in­ept of­fense over­shad­owed what the Wizards had been ac­com­plish­ing de­fen­sively for most of the sea­son, but the re­cent resur­gence has sud­denly brought those un­her­alded ef­forts to light.

“Even when we were los­ing a lot of games, we were play­ing good de­fense. From Day One, it’s been our sta­ple. We just weren’t scor­ing enough,” re­serve point guard A. J. Price said. “Coaches do a great job of pre­par­ing us, so it does have a lot to do with sys­tem, schemes and con­cepts, but then we got guys who are will­ing to play de­fense. We got guys who en­joy play­ing de­fense. So any­time you get a com­bi­na­tion like that, it usu­ally leads to success.”

En­ter­ing Satur­day, the Wizards ranked sixth in the NBA in points al­lowed per game at 95.3 and fifth in op­po­nent field goal per­cent­age at 43.7 per­cent — ahead of such usual stal­warts as Mi­ami, San An­to­nio and Bos­ton in both cat­e­gories. The fran­chise hasn’t ranked among the top 10 in op­po­nent scor­ing since Michael Jor­dan’s fi­nal sea­son in 2002-03 or in the top 10 in op­po­nent field goal per­cent­age since 1990-91.

“We know that we’re up there in the de­fen­sive cat­e­gory and we want to stay there,” Ariza said. “Our best bet is to lock down. De­fense is just ef­fort. You just have to put ef­fort in to play de­fense. Scor­ing the bas­ket­ball takes a lit­tle bit more, so if we con­tinue to give this ef­fort, we give our­selves a chance ev­ery night.”

Coach Randy Wittman started get­ting the Wizards to make tan­gi­ble im­prove­ment on de­fense af­ter they traded for Nene last March, but he has been able to im­ple­ment more ef­fec­tive schemes this sea­son with the ad­di­tions of Emeka Okafor, Ariza and Price. Hav­ing more de­fen­sive-minded play­ers on the ros­ter has aided Wittman in get­ting his play­ers to con­tinue buy­ing in, de­spite the lim­ited success the first two months of the sea­son. Nene said the play­ers trust one an­other and are in con­stant com­mu­ni­ca­tion on the de­fen­sive end, jok­ingly adding that he has “no water in my mouth” from talk­ing so much.

“You can have the best de­fen­sive schemes but if you’re not com­mit­ted, it ain’t go­ing to be worth” much, Wittman said. “So you’ve got to have guys that are go­ing to take the chal­lenge. ... It’s a mind-set. You don’t have to have a ball go in any­where on de­fense. It’s just a mat­ter of five guys be­ing con­nected, and we’re con­nected right now. No ques­tion. We’re cov­er­ing for each other and that’s the main thing.”

The veteran front line of Nene and Okafor has helped the Wizards stick to their pri­mary fo­cus of clog­ging the mid­dle, lim­it­ing points in the paint and forc­ing teams to beat them from the out­side. “We’d rather give up a jumper than a layup,” Price said.

Since Wall made his de­but, those prin­ci­ples have been raised to a dif­fer­ent level and the re­sults are show­ing, with only two op­po­nents reach­ing triple dig­its in his first 16 games. Over that stretch, Wizards op­po­nents are av­er­ag­ing only 91.3 points, which would rank third in the league, and shoot­ing 43.1 per­cent from the field, which would be tied for sec­ond with Ok­la­homa City. They have the league’s best de­fen­sive ef­fi­ciency rat­ing with Wall, lim­it­ing op­po­nents to just 95.1 points per 100 pos­ses­sions.

“That’s one thing Coach Witt prides us on is do­ing it on the de­fen­sive end be­cause we can score in var­i­ous ways and get out in the open court. They was do­ing a good job of mak­ing it tough on teams,” Wall said of his team­mates be­fore his re­turn. “The main thing to be good in this league, es­pe­cially a young team, you got to come out and play hard and that’s what we try to do ev­ery night and cre­ate of­fense off of our de­fense.”

The Wizards had 19 points off 15 turnovers against the Nets, with Wall get­ting four of his six field goals be­cause of op­por­tu­ni­ties cre­ated from steals.

“Our guys have bought into the sys­tem and have worked their tails off to do the things night in and night out that we need to do on the de­fen­sive end,” Wittman said. “Are you go­ing to make mis­takes? Yeah. But I like our mis­takes now be­ing made now be­cause they’re ag­gres­sive. We’re over­ag­gres­sive. We’re try­ing too hard. You take those as a coach.”

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