The Defensive Pressure That Opened The Door
The Washington Wizards talk about fourth quarter full-court pressure defense against Chicago, which helped make the 10 point loss a little more interesting, to say the least…
If anything, Randy Wittman has proven that he’s no Flip Saunders, past his own claims of the two being “polar opposites.” No, it’s not about wins and losses (beating the Bobcats twice? please), at least for the rest of this season. Yes, outcome is important and positive outcomes are nice, but ask a fan about winning or losing, and the Wizards can’t win. From moral victories to lottery losses to scoreboard reward, not many can be satisfied in this current state of four victories and 17 losses.
Wittman is willing to try more new things, starting Jan Vesely at the four over Andray Blatche for example. Or, down 78-63 to the Chicago Bulls on Monday night with nearly a quarter left to play, throwing a full court press after a Chicago timeout allowing Tom Thibodeau to insert M.V.P. point guard Derrick Rose back into the game. It’s not like Saunders didn’t reach deep into his bag of gimmicks, responsiveness from his players was clearly the issue.
“I was a little hesitant to really do what we did there in the fourth quarter,” said coach Randy Wittman at the end of the night, “because… [chuckles]… we hadn’t worked on it, but I said, ‘Let’s go, guys, we got one chance here to make this a ball game.'”
Washington responded immediately — with a unit of John Wall, Jordan Crawford, Nick Young, Trevor Booker, and JaVale McGee — racing to a 15-8 run in fewer than four minutes. Thanks to the pressure, the Wizards trimmed their deficit to eight points. A Nick Young three-pointer capped the comeback, with Wittman afterward stomping his feet all over the hardwood floor to remind Young to not bask in his offense, but rather to find the shooters and pressure as necessary. Chicago answered by finally breaking Washington’s full-court defense with ease, ending the Wizards run with a Carlos Boozer dunk, holding their lead at 88-78.
“Our point guards Shelvin [Mack] and John are picking up 84, 94 feet… Book [Booker] has to ability to really cover a lot of ground, and I thought he did a heckuva job of trying to get the ball out of Rose’s hands early, make [Joakim] Noah and those guys make a play,” said Wittman. “JaVale… there’s a little technique being the last man standing back there with what you have to do. You know… he didn’t know. We haven’t been able to work on it. He came away from the basket a little bit too much — a couple drop-offs to [Carlos] Boozer where you got to make Noah, the 7-foot center, make plays driving down the middle of the floor.”
After a very poor shot by Young — he caught himself in the air and tried, in a spastic manner, to draw a foul to no avail — and a turnover by Derrick Rose, Wittman called timeout with 6:11 left in the game, his team still down 88-78. They needed a much-deserved break. However, coming out of that timeout, the young heroes of Washington did everything they could to destroy their momentum on a single possession. Three missed jumpers — Young from 21 feet, Wall from 17 feet, and Crawford from 21 feet — and two McGee offensive rebounds later, the Bulls were on their way to pushing their lead back up to 14 at 92-78, leading to another Wittman timeout.
The Wizards would again get within eight points at 96-88 with 1:15 left, but by then they were spent. Chicago mentally dominated the game, but not without providing Washington with valuable learning opportunities. The final score was 98-88.
When the Wizards came out the season’s gate with five straight losses, looking like one of the laziest, dumbest, most selfish, most uninspiring teams ever seen, owner Ted Leonsis wrote a post on his blog titled, “Going as I expected.” Hardly believable now with a coach fired. Monday night’s loss to the Bulls was more along the lines of what should have been expected for this season — a young team gladly getting scrappy, sharing the ball and trying until the end, but getting beat by the more veteran squad. Sure, youth, no summer league and a short training camp provided great barriers, but those are mere excuses.
The Wizards franchise faltered when they did not establish more of a culture of toughness and accountability from day one this season. The continued pacifying of Blatche is just part of the problem, not sure how much you blame management for trusting him several times over. Now, the attitude of Randy Wittman and his willingness to impose principles of defensive pressure upon his team (and for them to see that it works), might just have a large hand in righting the ship. No, Washington won’t be running dead-legs to give opponents 48 minutes — or even 10 minutes — of hell on every occasion. But now the Wizards see they are capable, that they have the tools, and most importantly, they are starting to trust each other. The practice of aggressive defense helps subconsciously impose the desired culture on the players, just maybe.
Washington is starting to do a lot of things right lately, despite results that continue to irk the wider fanbase. Impatience at this point can be fruitless, but hardly unjustified. Poor effort in heavy doses at the beginning of this season taints recent good effort. With more nights like the one against Chicago, they will start to win over some skeptics. But to solidify the foundation, the Wizards have to build from game-to-game, and not fall into the spiral of rebuilding that seems to reduce this team to rubble.