Focus on Defense Has the Wizards One Game Away from Advancing | Wizards Blog Truth About It.net

Focus on Defense Has the Wizards One Game Away from Advancing

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Updated: April 28, 2017

The main difference between playoff basketball and the regular season variety is the familiarity teams develop with an opponent over a seven-game series. The rate of success (wins) is largely dependent upon which team makes the best adjustments from game to game to outsmart their opponents. After the Hawks were able to hold serve with two double-digit wins over the Wizards in Atlanta, it was up to coach Scott Brooks to counter those adjustments and protect his home court in D.C.

Most of the tweaks came on the defensive end, and all it took was a good film session, according to Brooks. “We had a great film session. It was direct and honest and I think the guys responded,” he said.

The Wizards had their best defensive performance in recent memory and were able to hold an opponent under the 100-point mark for the first time since they yielded 95 points in a loss to the Utah Jazz on April 1.

One of the adjustments his Wizards made was in pick-and-roll coverage. In the first two games of the series, the Wizards ducked under screens because the Hawks were not making shots. But in games 3 and 4, the Hawks combated the Wizards’ willingness to go under every screen by setting up shop closer to the basket, which allowed for Atlanta’s ball-handlers to finish easier looks.

In Game 5, however, the Wizards’ big men did a much better job of giving a hard hedge to the screen, preventing some of the wide-open shots Atlanta had at home. The team’s guards are still going under the screen, but because the Hawks two-man game revolves around a dribble-drive (and not a pick-and-pop or roll), the Wizards have just enough time to recover to the perimeter and attack the ball.

Another defensive adjustment that the team made going into the game was showing the double-team to Paul Millsap as soon as he caught the ball on the low block. When Scott Brooks was asked about the doubling of Millsap, he said that it was an effort by the team to protect Markieff:

 “We wanted to try to save Keef [Markieff Morris] from getting in foul trouble—I don’t know if that strategy worked. [We] might have to go back and try something else. I thought it did work a few possessions. It’s something that we talked about and worked on and I give our guys a lot of credit, they executed it [and] it took them a little bit out of their rhythm. [Paul] Millsap is a handful—he’s so crafty [and] he gets our guys in foul trouble. We have to somehow counter that and tonight was one of the ways we can counter that.”

Morris acknowledged that the double-teaming strategy was meant to protect him and that further adjustments would be made to ensure that strategy is implemented better (keeping him on the floor).

Millsap finished the game with 21 points and 11 rebounds, but he did not have enough of an impact in the fourth quarter to swing the game: Millsap went 2-for-9 from the field in the final frame and was not as successful at drawing those fouls that he—and his team—has been so dependent upon all series.

After the game Dennis Schröder referenced some of Millsap’s missed layup attempts and said that he thought there could have been some fouls called, but that he did not want to blame the refs.

Bradley Beal: defensive stopper?

One of the better Wizards defenders in the Game 5 win against the Hawks was Bradley Beal, who finished the game with three steals and three blocks to go along with his 27 points. Beal brought a lot of energy on the defensive end and seemed to be really comfortable picking up Dennis Scrhöder on a few cross-matches in the second half. Coach Brooks lamented how underrated he feels Beal is as a two-way player in this league, and how everyone in the organization feels confident relying on him as a defender.

“Brad is—I say this often and I don’t know how much traction it gets—one of the best two-way players in the league. He’s not going to tell anybody that he’s a great defender, but his coaching staff [and] his teammates know that he locks up defensively, gives you great effort, and gives you an honest day’s work,” Brooks said. “He has such a great, smooth game offensively and you’re kind of mesmerized by that, but he’s a two-way player and he’s one of the best at his position.”

Beal made some of his most important defensive plays in the fourth quarter, where he was able to use his length to contest several shots, including a crucial block of a Paul Millsap jumper with 1:24 left in the game as the Wizards were clinging to a five-point lead.

On the other side of the ball, Beal, known as a deadly knock-down shooter, shot just 1-for-9 from 3-point range and is shooting 24 percent from deep on the series. This slump will not last forever, and the fact that the Wizards were able to get the win despite Big Panda’s shooting struggles should bode well for future games when his shooting stroke is (hopefully) revived.

The front court stepped out of the shadows.

Coming into the series, it was pretty much consensus opinion that the Wizards would have a decided advantage over the Hawks in terms of back court production, but where the Hawks would be able to find their mismatches would be with their All-Star-laden front court. That’s exactly how it’s played out, but in Game 5 the Wizards were able to heavily rely on their lone center and forwards to combat the size of the Hawks. The main catalyst for the success of the Wizards’ front court was Otto Porter, who had by far his best game of the series. Porter finished with 17 points on just four field goal attempts—and the reason he thrived was that he stopped hanging around the perimeter waiting to get open looks from 3 and started cutting to the basket and putting pressure on Hawks defenders. Porter was able to use his wiry frame to draw shooting fouls, earning a career-high 10 free throw attempts, knocking down nine.

The fact that Porter had as much success getting to the line that he did was baffling to Atlanta’s boss, Mike Budenholzer:

“That’s the thing that stands out to me. I keep going to the free-throw line and keep seeing 10 free throws for Otto Porter, and I genuinely can’t remember how he got to 10 but that’s a big number. You look at John Wall, who shoots one free throw, you look at Paul Millsap, who shoots six. Both of those guys are attacking the basket all the time, nonstop. That’s a big, big number, that’s how he gets to 17. I felt like one of the threes we weren’t maybe as locked in or as focused.

Marin Gortat was still not able to find his scoring touch offensively, but he contributed with screen action. Gortat led all players during the regular season with 6.7 screened assists per game, but during the playoffs he has extended that number to 10.1. Defensively, Gortat was relied upon to increase his workload by being a lot more active in the pick-and-roll, and he was able to show his underrated athletic ability by hedging the ball-handler on the screen, while still being able to get back underneath the basket to protect the rim and the defensive glass. The team will have to rely heavily on Gortat in Game 6 if backup center Ian Mahinmi is not able to come back from the calf strain that has  kept him out series, and especially if veteran Jason Smith is not able to go after suffering a calf strain of his own.

The Hawks will surely not go quiet into the night, and the Wizards will need to continue to find ways to take the pressure off of the team’s dynamic back court, who have done everything possible to see that this team’s Eastern Conference Finals dreams come true.

Troy Haliburton on Twitter
Troy Haliburton
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Troy Haliburton is a native Washingtonian, and graduate of Gonzaga College High School and Morehouse College. He is going into his second season writing for Truth About It, and also writes for sports analytics website numberfire.com. You can find him in a district bike lane in the Northwest neighborhood of Bloomingdale.