The Washington Wizards have touted one of the NBA’s most improved defenses over the past month, quietly reshaping an early-season identity marked by nonchalance and ineptitude. Had Coach Scott Brooks’s team played in November and December with the same full-throttle effort it did in a 101-87 win over the Detroit Pistons on Monday afternoon, it may not be six games under .500 and still outside the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference.
But at least the Wizards are giving themselves a chance to revive their season, because aside from the rhythm they have found on the offensive end in the wake of point guard John Wall’s season-ending heel surgery this month, they have also fully committed themselves to the defensive end in the past 10 games. The Wizards have won seven of those contests, including Monday’s, when it suffocated the Pistons into one of their worst offensive performances of the season. Washington (20-26) moved into a tie for ninth place in the East with Detroit (20-26), which shot just 30 percent from the field in the first half, gave away 17 turnovers and collected just two offensive rebounds, about nine short of its season average. The 87 points were the fewest Washington has allowed this season.
“I thought the defense was outstanding on all parts of the game,” Brooks said. “We got into the ball, we did a great job on pick and rolls, and we rebounded the ball. We were really good. We give ourselves a chance to win every night if we can win the rebounding game.”
Washington looked like a desperate team from the onset Monday, aware of the ground it still has to make up to position itself for a playoff run before next month’s all-star break. With such a challenging schedule ahead — defending NBA champion Golden State will visit Thursday — the Wizards can’t afford to drop games against lower-tier Eastern Conference teams such as the Pistons, who didn’t match their opponents’ energy for an afternoon tip at Capital One Arena. Washington struck offensive balance as expected — it had seven players score in double figures, including a team-high 20 from Trevor Ariza. Otto Porter Jr. came off the bench for a ninth straight game and finished with 19 points, while Bradley Beal posted 16.
But Beal, Porter and forward Jeff Green (11 points) focused most of their postgame comments on the collective defensive effort, which had been such a liability earlier in the year.
“It was just effort. It’s just a matter of being locked in, locking in to the game plan,” Beal said.
“Our defense overall has just been better. We’ve been communicating, not allowing teams to get a lot of offensive rebounds, forcing turnovers, getting in transition,” Green said.
Washington entered Monday’s game with a defensive rating of 106.9 in January — including a fourth-quarter rating of 89.6, the best in the NBA — but it didn’t wait until late to tighten the screws. Detroit superstar Blake Griffin earned his numbers, finishing with 29 points and nine rebounds, but the Pistons scored a season-low 34 points in the first half. Washington led by as many as 24 points and was dominant in the paint, holding a 46-32 scoring advantage in the lane. Detroit also scored just 10 points in transition.
The most powerful series of defensive stops came in the third quarter. Beal deflected the ball out of guard Bruce Brown’s hands, forcing a quick missed jumper. That led Green on a fast break and a three-point play with just under seven minutes left in the quarter to make it 58-43. A block by Thomas Bryant later in the period led to a fast-break opportunity for Tomas Satoransky, who dished to Ariza in the corner for a three-pointer.
Moments later, another block by Green on guard Reggie Bullock led to the same thing — Satoransky in the open floor, driving and kicking to Ariza for another corner three-pointer. Those sequences underscored the elevated effort of these Wizards, who are still digging themselves out of an early-season hole.
“Overall, our defense was good tonight. Our defense won the game tonight,” Brooks said. “Hopefully we can continue to do that.”