The Wizards are not just playing better defense, lately they've been elite

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Chase Hughes
·5 min read
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The Wizards are playing elite defense. What? originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

The Wizards have not exactly been associated with defense in recent years. Well, at least not good defense. Last season, per Basketball-Reference, they had the second-worst defensive rating in NBA history. At 115.5, only the 2018-19 Cleveland Cavaliers were worse. Not surprisingly, it lost the Wizards a lot of games.

You could look at the stats or something a bit more anecdotal. When the Wizards rebranded their home stadium to Capital One Arena back in 2017, some tried to nickname it 'The Vault,' including Bradley Beal. It's no secret why it didn't catch on.

For most of this season, the Wizards have been bad defensively, too. They are 25th in defensive rating (114.0 per NBA.com) and 29th in points allowed (119.1/g). But lately, they have flipped a switch to become not just an improved defensive team, but legitimately one of the best in the NBA.

No, seriously. Though the Wizards' overall turnaround dates back 12 games, as they are 7-5 in that span, the defensive lockdown began 10 games ago when they beat the Miami Heat, 103-100, on the road. In their last 10 games, the Wizards have the sixth-best defensive rating in the league (109.3). They have gone 6-4 and would likely have won more games if their offense, ironically, didn't lag behind.

It goes beyond defensive efficiency. In their last 10 games, the Wizards are also fifth in opponent field goal percentage, fastbreak points and points in the paint allowed. They are ninth in turnovers forced and 10th in steals.

Out of nowhere, the Wizards are building a defensive identity and the sample size is growing.

"We’re going to continue to play scrambling defense. That’s been our go-to for the last couple [games]," Bradley Beal said.

There are a few reasons for this turnaround beyond the statistical areas like transition and protecting the paint. For one, they are collectively in much better condition than they were for much of the season.

The Wizards are now about a month removed from having six games postponed across 13 days due to a coronavirus outbreak. They had nearly two weeks off from games and some players took longer. It then required a few weeks of games for their players to catch up.

"We kept saying we need games, we need games. Well, February has given us games," head coach Scott Brooks said.

"I thought our last couple of games, our legs were ready. We’re ready to play some consistent basketball on the defensive end. It’s hard to be a good defensive team when you’re not in great shape. The reason why we’re not in great shape is because we missed three weeks in the middle of the season. It wasn’t because we’ve got guys that are lazy and were eating In-N-Out burgers."

Being in better shape means the Wizards can cover more ground, particularly on the perimeter. They have seen subtle improvement there as well. Despite allowing teams to shoot 38.2 from three on the season (24th in the NBA), in the last 10 games that number has dropped to 36.3 percent (12th). 

Brooks found more success guarding the three-point line on Saturday night against the Blazers after he made a drastic in-game adjustment to his lineup. After Portland shot 8-for-17 from three in the first quarter, he first pulled Isaac Bonga from the end of the bench for the first time in about a month. That gave them more length. He also went small with Rui Hachimura at the five.

Hachimura has stood out as much as anyone on the defensive end, Brooks believes. Twice in his postgame press conference on Saturday he raved about Hachimura's defense. He did the same in his locker room speech video released by the team.

Brooks has seen a different version of Hachimura in recent weeks.

"Rui was guarding a lot of times one through five. He switched out on one of the best guards in the league [in Damian Lillard], one of the best shot-makers in the league and one of the most crafty players in the league. He did a good job," Brooks said.

Hachimura, in fact, held Lillard to 0-for-4 from the field. He helped the Wizards limit Lillard to 10-for-30 overall, an off-night for him.

"Rui told us a few practices ago that he can guard one through five," Beal said. "We’re holding him to that standard and he’s holding himself to that with what he’s doing. It’s no surprise for us, honestly."

Robin Lopez has also been a difference maker. During this 10-game stretch, he has led the Wizards in defensive rating at 101.4. On Saturday, players he defended went 0-for-13 from the field. 

"He knows what he does. He’s not the quickest guy in the league, but he knows his angles," Brooks said.

The Wizards collectively held the Blazers to 35.9 percent shooting. This is a team that had won six straight and scores the third-most points in the NBA.

Are the Wizards a good defensive team now? It's still too early to tell, but we now know what they are capable of.

OddsMoney LinePoint SpreadTotal Points
Washington
+230+6.5O 237.5
Denver
-295-6.5U 237.5