[Editor's Note: Rashad Mobley has reported on the Wizards with media credentials since the 2008-09 season for Hoops Addict. He occasionally contributes to Truth About It.net, providing excellent analysis and a different perspective from his up-close coverage of the team.]
Less than 24 hours after he arrived in Washington D.C., newly-acquired Washington Wizards forward Al Thornton held court in front of the locker previously occupied by DeShawn Stevenson. He had just led his team in scoring with 21 points on 7-of-12 shooting, and the Wizards defeated the playoff-bound Denver Nuggets. Under normal circumstances, the members of the media would be focusing on how he was able to score so easily, or how hectic things had been for him recently.
But that wasn’t completely the case.
In addition to the aforementioned 21 points, Thornton had four blocked shots, played tight defense on Carmelo Anthony, and it was seemingly contagious, as the Wizards held the Nuggets to just 15 fourth quarter points.
But during his post game comments, Thornton said something that was worth a closer look.
“Its been a knock on me at times that I don’t play any defense, so I just wanted to come out and you know play defense.”
That sounds like a simple enough statement, right? The man knows his shortcomings. He went and did a stellar job on Carmelo, and then told the media in no uncertain terms, “This is a new start and I plan on re-dedicating myself.” I commend Thornton on his candor, it was a refreshing departure from the cliches that get thrown around. But how would Thornton perform on defense once the adrenaline of his first game as a Wizard died down? Would his legs hold up during the second game of a back-to-back? And would he revert to playing passive defense? This is what I wanted to watch last night when Thornton and the Wizards took on the Toronto Raptors up north in Canada.
But before we look back at last night’s game against the Raptors, let’s take a further look back at Thornton’s performance against Carmelo. Through three quarters, Anthony had 23 points on 7-of-15 shooting, and he was able to have his way in the post. He was hitting wide open jumpers, he drove the lane for layups, and he backed down Wizards’ defenders at will. In fact, at one point, he nearly knocked Andray Blatche clear off his feet while trying to score in the paint.
But in the five minutes and 35 seconds of fourth quarter that Carmelo played, Thornton guarded him perfectly. When the 6’8″, 230 lb Carmelo tried to bully his way into the lane, the 6’8′ 220 lb Thornton held his ground and forced him in another direction. When Carmelo tried to bring Thornton out on the perimeter and go around him, Thornton beat him to the spot, got the angle, and increased the level of difficulty on Carmelo’s jumper.
At one point Carmelo was so frustrated that after a particular play was blown dead, he shoved Thornton in the back without the refs seeing it. Thornton immediately started to charge back at Anthony, but then thought better of it.
Carmelo’s fourth quarter stat line? 0-for-5 from the field, o points and a turnover. Job well done Al Thornton.
In the Wizards, 109-104 loss to the Raptors last night, Thornton’s abilities as a defender were tested in a different way. At some points he was asked to guard the 6’9″ 210 lb, Amir Johnson, then he had to switch and guard the 6’3″ guard Jarrett Jack for a possession, then there was Andrea Bargnani, the seven-footer to deal with, 6’7″ 215 lb Antoine Wright was in the mix, and we still haven’t even gotten to the versatile Hedo Turkoglu.
Let’s break them down one by one, and see how Thornton fared.
Reggie Evans & Amir Johnson
Neither player was really integral to the success the Raptors had on offense last night, so Thornton was able to play a lot of help defense when on them. There was one instance with 6:37 left in the game when Evans drew a foul, getting Thornton to bite on a head fake, but missed both free throws, so there was really no harm done here. Johnson only shot the ball three times, and was a non factor.
Toward the end of the first half, Thornton got caught on switch, and was faced with the task of trying to guard Jack on the perimeter. Jack did what any quick guard with a decent handle is supposed to do in that circumstance: Go strong to the basket. He did that, Thornton fouled him, and the Raptors were able to extend their lead from five to seven going into halftime. You could argue Thornton should not have committed a foul like that toward the end of the half, and I’d agree with you. But again, this is a man trying to change his defensive ways, so he gets a pass here.
Andrea Bargnani & Antoine Wright
Both Bargnani (18 points) and Wright (19 points) were big contributors to the Raptors offense Saturday night, but it did not really come at Thornton’s expense. The one time Thornton had to guard Bargnani one-on-one in the post, it came toward the second quarter. Just as Carmelo had attempted one night earlier, Bargnani tried to back Thornton down, but Al more than held his ground. Bargnani was so thrown off that he was unable to get a shot off and had to kick the ball back out. He attempted to re-post and call for the ball, but again, Thornton knocked him off the spot.
Wright was one of the quicker players Thornton had to guard, but for whatever reason, Wright was not as aggressive when the bigger Thornton was on him. But with 2:31 seconds left in the game, Thornton found himself one-on-one against Wright as he tried to get to the basket. The faster Wright drove to the basket, but Thornton moved his feet, used his 20 pound advantage to slightly push Wright, and forced him into a difficult layup attempt which was no good.
As you can imagine, Hedo was Thornton’s most difficult assignment. As Marv Albert would say, Turkoglu has the “full repertoire”. He can shoot from long distance, he can post, he can play the point, he can do it all. At one point in the second quarter, Turkoglu out-manuevered Thornton and got to the basket for a layup. But the next time down the floor, Thornton blocked his shot. In their lone possession against each other in the third quarter, Turkoglu again went around Thornton easily and scored.
But when he was matched up against Turkoglu in the fourth quarter (which is arguably when it really matters), Thornton stepped up. He played good post defense, forced a turnover off the dribble, and made sure that any damage from Turkoglu did not come on his watch. More so than the results, the effort Thornton was making was impressive.
Now, I know it’s only two games, and I realize that there will be plenty more chances for me to break down his defensive effort with long, athletic teams like the Bulls and Grizzlies coming up on the schedule. But for a man who is not known for defending to make a declaration that he is going to improve, and then to basically guard every position on the floor the next night, it speaks volumes–to me at least.