How the Washington Wizards' defense got its groove back

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Scheme changes? A new rotation? Easier matchups? It might be even simpler than that.

WASHINGTON -- For all the attention given to John Wall's offensive flare, Bradley Beal's shooting ability and Nene's general artistic brilliance, the Wizards' success begins and ends on defense. It's a classic hoops cliche, but it's also one you hear from the players and coaches pretty much every day of the season.

Even when we're not making shots, we can still play defense.

While we typically talk about slumps in terms of offense, that may be the easiest way to describe what happened to Washington on the defensive end early this season. Surely there have been the usual, minor strategic changes that pepper any 82-game NBA season, but for Randy Wittman's team, those few months of disorganized, ineffective defense appear to be a thing of the past.

Sometimes shot don't fall. Sometimes defensive execution wanes.

After a 100-90 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers Monday, one that included an astonishing second-half defensive turnaround against the league's best offense, Wittman and the players didn't talk about adjustments or matchups. Rather, the bigger themes were stability and communication, smoothing over the rough edges.

"[It’s] nothing new that we’re doing. Our philosophies and concepts are the same. We’re just communicating more."-Randy Wittman

"[It’s] nothing new that we’re doing. Our philosophies and concepts are the same. We’re just communicating more," Wittman said. "There’s no surprises. Guys are talking ahead of time, whether it's a screen-and-roll or a screen away. I think that’s the biggest thing."

Earlier this season, Umair detailed the Wizards' issues as their defense toiled in the league's bottom half and concluded that an aggressive strategy had gotten out of hand, leaving defenders out of position and unable to recover. That was almost exactly a month ago. Now, Washington is No. 8 in defensive efficiency, per NBA.com, and rising quickly.

Trevor Ariza agreed the issues were never strategic.

"I feel like earlier in the season we were playing half games, especially on the defensive end," Ariza said in the locker room Monday night. "We weren’t locked in. We weren’t following our game plan and we weren’t playing for each other defensively. Tonight, the night before, we’ve been doing it."

We're all looking at the schemes, Wittman's rotations and the schedule, but maybe it really is that simple. When the Wizards lost Emeka Okafor before the season, we expected a drop-off, but there are a few things we may have underestimated. Specifically, Ariza and Wall are hounding the perimeter like few guys in the league.

"Uncanny. Can’t teach it. I wish I could say I taught him everything he knows. I can’t. He’s got that quality of reading eyes is really what it looks like to me," Wittman said of his Ariza's defensive instincts.

"I just watch him. He reads eyes," Wittman continued. "A lot of times, the eyes will tell you where the ball is going. And he’s got long arms, he’s long bodied and it fools you sometimes when actually those arms do come out, it’s uncanny. It’s been great. He’s been fabulous."

Asked about his freelancing role in the Wizards' defensive schemes, Ariza called it the ultimate compliment. Wittman said he allows his best defenders to do things other guys can't do. It's for a simple reason: They're talented enough to get back in position when a gamble goes awry.

And while it's easy to gush over Ariza's combination of size, athleticism and feel for the game, Wall's impact as the defense's first wave cannot be understated. Comparisons directly to Gary "The Glove" Payton should be tempered, but the physicality that Wall brings to the point guard position is special. It bothered the Blazers at the point of attack the entire night.

From the other side

Damian Lillard, guarded by both Ariza and Wall at times on Monday, said he doesn't really pay attention to matchups (hard to believe), but suggested the Wizards' length created issues.

"A lot of teams, you'll see doing that, where you have a guard that can score and that's making plays, they'll put that size on him," he said. "A guy that can chase him around, bother those shots, reach in, maybe strip the ball."

That is the formula for Wittman's Wizards. It begins and ends with Wall and Ariza shadowing the perimeter with ill intent, creating chaos without breaking down the integrity of the system. We saw some issues post-Okafor as Marcin Gortat adjusted to being the guy to cover for whatever breakdowns happened, but overcoming those problems was never going to happen overnight. Now, it appears everyone's figured out what to do and where to go, and it's happening outside of context or matchup. This a defense that's stepped up occasionally in the past and is now stepping up consistently in the present.

Watching the Wizards, do you disagree with this assessment? All things considered, it appears the team's aggressive switching has been softened up, allowing for more context-appropriate gambles and fewer desperate recoveries after the defense breaks down. In many ways, it's the kind of stuff that can be attributed to talking and working; going beyond the strategy, players still need to make quick decisions on the floor. A focus on stability and communication would likely address those issues.

But more importantly, we're all wondering if it can be sustained going forward. Assuming the health is there, it looks like everything else is in place.

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