The San Antonio Spurs have built one of the strongest franchises in the NBA by becoming one of the league’s stingiest defensive teams. Lately, however, that signature characteristic of their game has been noticeably absent.
After having their five-game win streak snapped because of another uncharacteristically poor defensive effort, the Spurs look to avoid their first back-to-back defeats of the season Wednesday when they host the high-scoring Washington Wizards.
The Spurs led the league in scoring defense last season, allowing 90.1 points per game to rank in the league’s top three in that category for the 10th straight season. That defensive prowess has been instrumental in the Spurs winning four NBA championships during that stretch.
San Antonio (12-3) has continued to succeed this season, opening with the best 14-game start in team history despite some defensive lapses. The Spurs’ inability to stop opponents, however, caught up to them Monday, when they fell 112-99 at Sacramento for their first loss in six games.
“We are not playing the kind of defense we want to play,” Spurs guard Manu Ginobili said. “We need to be ready to play smarter defense. Not just harder, but smarter. I feel like we have been winning with our offense lately.
“We have had games where we score 128, 115 and 110. It’s always fun in the game, but that’s not who we are. We’ve really got to find our defense and hold teams under 90 points.”
The Spurs are still near the top of the league in scoring defense at 92.9 points per game, but they’ve given up 102.8 in their last four. Five of San Antonio’s last seven opponents have shot better than 50 percent from the field - a feat accomplished against the Spurs only eight times last season.
“We are not really good right now,” said Tim Duncan, a seven-time member of the All-Defensive first team. “But it is early in the season. This is the time to get better for the playoffs. We are going to have to get much better on defense in order to get where we want to go.”
San Antonio could struggle to contain red-hot Washington, which has topped 100 points in nine straight games to go 7-2 in that stretch.
The Wizards (7-7) lost back-to-back games over the weekend, but rebounded with a 110-98 victory Monday night in Dallas, where the Mavericks had won their first six games.
The Wizards’ recent success on the offensive end has caught teams around the league by surprise, considering Washington has been without Gilbert Arenas - the team’s leading scorer last season - for the last six games. Arenas is expected to miss three months after undergoing knee surgery last week.
Without Arenas, Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison have sparked the Wizards offensively. Butler went 13-for-17 from the field and had 35 points in the win over Dallas, and Jamison added 27 points while shooting 7-for-15.
“That was one heck of a win for us,” Wizards coach Eddie Jordan said. “The things that have been good for us since Gil has been out is our camaraderie, our support for each other and we know we have to have it. So the intrinsic values help us a lot.”
With Monday’s win, the Wizards improved to 4-2 without Arenas this season. They were 3-5 with him.
“Never underestimate our will,” said Butler, who’s averaging 31.8 points, 7.8 rebounds, 5.3 assists and 2.8 steals while shooting 58.5 percent from the field in his last four games. “Guys were aggressive and stayed positive. It’s not going to be one individual (replacing Arenas). We’ve just got to continue to keep this thing going.”
That could be a challenge against San Antonio, which had no problem stopping the high-powered Wizards last season. The Spurs held Washington to 81.5 points per game and swept the two-game season series.