Star Tribune recap.
T-Wolves Blog: Where was McCants in the fourth quarter?
In: Nachoooo. Out: Hibachi.
Minnesota was pesky the entire game. They led for most of the way, and they tied the score with 5:22 remaining on a pullup jumper from Sebastian Telfair. From that point on, we dominated the game like few I've ever seen.
Over the next 2:20, the Wizards went on a 16-1 run to put the game away. Let's go possession by possession. Again, my memory might fail me here, so let me know if the description doesn't match what happened.
5:13: Arenas is unconscious at this point, so you can forgive him for shooting a contested fadeaway very early in the shot clock. You'll get some of that from Arenas, but it best come near the end of the game, where defenses tighten up. 85-83.
4:58: Telfair dribbles around and then loses the ball out of bounds. Credit Arenas here, and all season, for committing more effort to the defensive end of the court. Also, Rashad McCants checks into the game, and remains in for the duration, so I'm not sure where this criticism comes from, to be honest. Minnesota was playing fine without him in the game...it fell apart once he came back.
4:40: Arenas finally cools off, missing an open jumper he usually makes. Still, because the defense has been broken down, Caron Butler is able to sneak in to get the offensive rebound, and Corey Brewer fouls him. Butler hits both. 87-83. At this point, Blatche enters for Songaila.
4:26: McCants takes a long, contested jumper, and it misses. Blatche boards, and whips it out to Daniels for the fast break. Al Jefferson fouls him, and Daniels hits both free throws. 89-83. Ideally, I think this was the Wizards' defensive plan last year too; force long jumpers to speed up the game. The difference is that we're contesting those jumpers now, unlike before, when there was a tendency to sag.
4:18: Jefferson throws a horrible pass in the backcourt, and Butler easily steals it. Arenas misses the fastbreak layup, but Haywood rebounds, puts it back, and is fouled by Brewer. Haywood misses the free throw. 91-83.
3:52: Antoine Walker isolates Blatche, spins, and draws a foul. He hits one of two free throws. 91-84. Remember this possession.
3:34: Arenas tosses in one of his backbreakers on this posession. The offense stagnates, and Gilbert finds himself isolated against Brewer at the top of the key, with the shot clock running under 10. He takes a couple dribbles, and right as Brewer relaxes, Arenas pulls up and hits the three in Brewer's face. Talk about schooling the rookie. 94-84.
3:17: What follows is easily the Wizards' best defensive possession of the game. The Timberwolves try isolating Walker on Blatche again, but this time, Blatche has learned his lesson. Walker tries to get to the middle again, but Blatche forces him baseline, right into Brendan Haywood. The Wizards trap, Walker turns it over, and Arenas rewards Blatche for running the floor with a great setup. Blatche finishes, McCants commits a silly foul, and Blatche converts the three-point play. 97-84.
Why is this possession so great? One of the tenants of a great defense is the ability to force penetration into your tallest defenders. It's what the Spurs have been doing for years. This intuitively makes sense; taller players have longer arms, and therefore are better at altering a shooter's vision. The objective therefore isn't to stop penetration, it's to funnel it to bad spots on the floor.
In the past couple years, there's been too much of a focus on stopping penetration, rather than controlling it. There was no defensive scheme, just a "stop penetration and play hard" dogma, and naturally, that's not enough in today's NBA. But now, it seems Randy Ayers is actually making a real difference defensively, because Blatche's ability to force Walker into the trap is a sign of good coaching. It looks like there's a defensive philosophy now that's built in specifics rather than general concepts.
Could this have happened if Blatche and Haywood weren't on the floor at the same time? Probably not. But one of Blatche's problems in the past was a lack of concentration defensively. He had all the tools, just not the smarts. Veteran players were able to force him off-balance and get to spots they wanted to go. Clearly, Randy Ayers is getting through to him, and if Ayers can get through to Blatche, he can probably get through to anyone.
3:06: Minnesota is clearly shaken, and McCants, after committing a bad foul, turns the ball over in the backcourt. Arenas scoops it up and feeds Blatche for a big alleyoop dunk. Game, set, match.
The Wizards' defensive rating in the fourth quarter was 63, as they allowed 15 points on just over 23 posessions. Sure, some of that was Minnesota imploding, but it was a great, great defensive display for a team that has struggled to finish games, especially on the road. We've mostly attributed the defensive improvement to personnel, namely Blatche and Haywood, but Randy Ayers deserves a ton of credit as well for installing a scheme that works.
Obviously, it's still early, but even though Ayers hasn't had as dramatic of an effect as the hated one, he is still making a major difference already.