You hear it a lot from Doug Collins, in between long rambling thoughts about 300 different things all at once. It's the reverse of what so many people say about the league when they bash it. But it really is true.
The NBA is a first-quarter league. Tonight's game really proved it.
The Wizards struggled with three things in tonight's loss against Atlanta: transition defense, overly-frantic offense and fouls. In the first quarter, after the Wizards took a 15-5 lead by playing smart, efficient basketball and dictating tempo, we saw too much isolation and too many mad dashes to the hoop by Gilbert Arenas and Brendan Haywood on offense. We saw too many guys go for offensive rebounds, allowing Atlanta to run off misses and use their superior athleticism to finish plays. FInally, we saw foul difficulties -- Mike Miller had two, Fabricio Oberto had two and DeShawn Stevenson had three.
It's not easy to slow down a game once it gets sped up. The Wizards could never regain control of the game's tempo, and that's why they couldn't catch up. Had they been more vigilant about establishing their style of game early, they would have won the game.
Oh well. Lesson learned.
Four Factors: (Bold=very high | Italics=very low)
Lineup details, via Popcorn Machine:
- Highest individual plus/minus: Mike Miller (+7 in 32:48) and Fabricio Oberto (+7 in 18:12)
- Lowest individual plus/minus: Andray Blatche (-17 in 33:36) and DeShawn Stevenson (-9 in 11:18)
- Best lineup: Gilbert Arenas/Mike Miller/Caron Butler/Fabricio Oberto/Brendan Haywood (+4 to start the game)
- Worst lineup: Gilbert Arenas/Randy Foye/Dominic McGuire/Andray Blatche/Brendan Haywood (-7 to close the first half)
How much of tonight is Gilbert Arenas' fault?
As mentioned above, the biggest problem tonight was the Wizards' inability to dictate tempo. Atlanta is not a fast-paced team, and 92 possessions is pretty average all things considering, but they were running on missed shots and converting a high percentage of their fast-break opportunities. A lot of the time, the Wizards were caught out of position in their transition defense, both on fast breaks and secondary breaks, when the Wizards got in trouble with cross-matches from guys not getting back.
A large part of the problem was that Arenas was breaking a lot of plays to drive to the basket. Yes, it's true that you want Arenas to be aggressive, in particular because it would wear down Joe Johnson. However, that has to come more in the flow of the offense than it did tonight. Arenas kept calling his own number instead of letting the offense run itself and then dumping the ball to another scorer. The rest of the players were often not prepared for Arenas' decisions and didn't get in position to defend in transition. Gil's 9-22 line kind of proves how much this strategy didn't work.
I get Arenas' logic on one level. With so many difficult calls going against him, Arenas, like most superstars, drove to the rim because if you don't get the call one time, you tend to get the call the next time. But this process repeated itself over and over and over again tonight. It became clear that the referees were not going to give Arenas the call for constantly creating contact (even though they gave the call when Atlanta ... ah nevermind, no whining about the officials). When that happens, maybe you should try changing your strategy.
So a part of this was indeed Arenas' fault. But there were a couple other problems to note.
One, of course, was the loss of Caron Butler. His injury meant Arenas was out there with a bunch of guys best suited to playing off the Big 3. Running the offense means running a lot of plays that end with Butler getting the ball n a good spot. Without that luxury, there are significantly fewer plays you can run out there. Having Butler makes it much easier for Arenas to slow things down and run Flip Saunders' sets.
The other was the big men. Brendan Haywood looked for his offense too much last night, pressing and keeping guys out of position. Meanwhile, a lot of the other players, such as Blatche and Mike Miller, were too aggressive going for offensive rebounds. You can get offensive rebounds on Atlanta, but it's a major risk you take because of their ability to fast break. In large part, they want you to go for offensive rebounds, because it allows them to leak out and get easy buckets. There were so many plays where there were at least two guys trailing the ball because they were fruitlessly going after an offensive rebound. That's how tempo gets controlled.
So, it's part Arenas, part the bigs and part Butler (for getting hurt).
The fouling has got to stop
Yes, it's true that there were a lot of questionable ticky-tack fouls called on the Wizards tonight. But nevertheless, for the second straight game, the Wizards committed far too many fouls on defense. What makes it particularly frustrating is that the Wizards did a great job contesting Atlanta on the perimeter, as evidenced by the mediocre eFG% put up by the Hawks.
What separates the good defenses from the defenses that seem good, but aren't is the ability to contest drives without fouling. You don't need to go for the strip when you can simply force guys into your big players, contest and live with the results. The latter is a form of disciplined defenses that you always see from the best defensive teams (San Antonio, Orlando, Houston). So, when Joe Johnson gets into the lane and has to take that difficult floater, don't do him a favor and bail him out. Don't play these guys so close on the perimeter where you have to hand-check them every time they drive. That's just not necessary.
Getting to the line also allows you to control when you run. The Wizards could never get very many fast breaks going because they were always taking the ball out of bounds after Atlanta's free throws. By contrast, Atlanta played tough defense without fouling, and they were able to run very easily. This is something the Wizards need to fix.
Covering Joe Johnson
How did the Wizards do on Joe Johnson? Well, it was mixed. They did hold him down to 5-16 shooting, mostly because when he was forced to shoot, the Wizards did a great job of contesting those shots. On that front, they were very successful.
However, Johnson still got his 17 points and six rebounds despite a bad shooting night. Why? Too much fouling once he got in the lane, for one. For another, the Wizards still trapped him and sagged on him a little too often tonight. He was able to set up a couple guys for threes and open shots, which empowered the rest of the Hawks.
So, I guess I'd say mixed results here. There still was too much overhelping on guys other than Johnson (don't ever leave Mo Evans open for the corner three!) as well. But at least Flip has some data on times when the Wizards did something right on a big gun defensively. He needs to use those clips in future film sessions.
- This wasn't Brendan Haywood's best game. Yes, he did have 19 points on 12 shots, with nine rebounds, but I was not happy with how he did on the defensive glass. A lot of those rebounds came late in garbage time. He was looking for his shot a little too much as well. Atlanta's speedy frontcourt gave him a lot of problems, but there were also times when he just wasn't as active boxing out as he normally is. I'm not concerned, but it's worth pointing out that his numbers still were a bit hollow.
- Is it ever possible to get 10 rebounds selfishly? If so, I thought Mike Miller teetered close to that. He took a lot of rebounds away from the Wizards' bigs, rushing in there to get the board instead of waiting for an outlet pass to start the break. He also desperately needs to shoot more, particularly when Butler was injured. There was one play where he had a layup, but instead threw it back to Andray Blatche for a 20-footer that clanked off the rim. Then again, Miller needs more plays run for him, and Arenas didn't do that because he was driving a ton.
- Nick Young's stint was definitely forgettable. He's playing like he has no confidence in his game.
- Yet another solid game from Andray Blatche, though his defense wasn't as good as it was against Dallas.
All in all, I wouldn't be too worried about this one. Atlanta has fewer pieces to integrate, and they were healthy and at home. We made it a game and it would have been even closer if we hit more free throws. We'll get them next time.