Hooray! A win! The Washington Wizards had easily their best performance of the young season, defeating a tired Toronto Raptors team, 93-78. The new lineup, with Chris Singleton and Trevor Booker starting and Andray Blatche off the bench, was a success, with the two youngsters providing great intensity and ensuring a culture of hustle was established. But the major spark came from rookie Jan Vesely, who got his hands on tons of passes, wreaked havoc defensively and completely changed the tempo of the game. The Wizards' half-court offense wasn't great, but their great defense led to lots of offense, which is exactly how they have to score with this mix.
It was everything we hoped to see from the Wizards this season. Some more notes on the game.
- One thing I noticed early was more weakside movement. On one play at the seven-minute mark, Chris Singleton cut through the middle on a JaVale McGee post up, preventing the Raptors from doubling McGee once he dribbled. McGee used that attention to make a strong up and under move on Andrea Bargnani for a layup. Weakside cutting is important even when the cutters don't get the ball because it occupies the defense long enough to give the man with the ball a better opportunity to catch his defender off-balanced.
- John Wall has to understand how much valuable he could be if he was a better weakside cutter, considering his speed and finishing ability. With the shot clock winding down, Wall had a chance to cut backdoor on Jose Calderon, who was overplaying him. Instead, he stood for a while, then cut away from the basket with three seconds left, forcing him to shoot a fadeaway three-pointer that hit the top of the backboard. This is one of the more frustrating things I've noticed about Wall's game.
- Nice job by everyone involved in the last play of the first quarter. Shelvin Mack used the Andray Blatche screen well, and when the defender in the weakside corner cheated to the middle and turned his head, Rashard Lewis made a cut to the basket, got a nice pass from Mack and delivered a hoop. Nick Young would be smart to study that play, seeing as he forced a fadeaway three that was luckily rendered irrelevant by an offensive rebound.
- Good to see Mack enter early and prove that while he's not spectacular or anything, he's a better backup point guard than anyone on the roster. I will say that Toronto's defense early in the second quarter resembled last year's team. That said, the Wizards did seem to make a concerted effort to make quick decisions when they caught the ball.
Jordan Crawford telegraphed his intentions early in the second quarter, but improved later on. He got an isolation situation against Leandro Barbosa, but instead of moving quickly, he took a second, took two pointless dribbles and attempted an obvious fadeaway that Barbosa easily blocked. However, he was much better later in the quarter, using quick, decisive motions to elude defenders and get to the basket. Hopefully he starts to realize that he won't have time to survey the floor every time he catches the ball, because it kills the Wizards' flow.
- Jan Vesely picked up a couple cheap fouls, but he has good help instincts when defending that will become even better as he gained experience. That's clearly the strongest part of his game, and it made a major impact on the Wizards' intensity. More on that in a bit.
- The Wizards' half-court defense was much better early in the second quarter, especially with closing out. Too often, the Wizards' help defenders don't recover back to their man when the ball is swung, but they did a much better job this time. They also defender DeMar DeRozan very well -- DeRozan only scored three points in the first 20 minutes of the game.
- The pick and roll defense also improved. My favorite play came at the three-minute mark. Jose Calderon and Andrea Bargnani ran a side pick and roll. Crawford went underneath the screen, but recovered in time to prevent Calderon from rising up and shooting over him. Calderon then tried to feed a rolling Bargnani, but because Crawford recovered quickly, Vesely was able to recover and deflect the pass. Vesely had his hands up too, which was great defensive technique. "Active hands" is a great way to describe his defensive game."
- The Wizards moving their feet defensively triggered the secondary break and made it easier for them to move the ball offensively. Vesely and others completely changed the tempo of the game. Mostly, though, it was Vesely.
- Excellent job by Flip Saunders with his first-half rotations. Starting Booker helped establish a culture of hustle. Bringing Blatche off the bench and feeding him allowed him to attack second-line defenders until he got tired, which improved his output. Sticking Mack in the game as the backup point guard helped ensure the sets were run and relieved some pressure from Crawford to play his game.
- In a weird, nice sense of irony, it was the Raptors who were doing a lot of catching and holding offensively, especially Bargnani. Also, Amir Johnson's 19-foot flat-footed jumper to begin the second half was the kind of shot we've seen so often from the Wizards this year -- reluctant, out of the flow of the offense, what the defense wants, etc.
- The Raptors showed zone, trying to change the tempo of the game. It was a bit of a desperate blow by Dwayne Casey, but it worked enough to serve its purpose: change the tempo of the game. It didn't work for long, though.
- JaVale McGee was correctly taken out because of a bad decision to try to make a play off the dribble, which was compounded by goal-tending Rasual Butler on the ensuing fast break. Getting Blatche in for him was a smart move, because he's a better passer and can find cutters on the perimeter, like he did on that great pass to Singleton that helped regain momentum.
- Good on the Wizards to give Booker some opportunities to post up Bargnani. After the way he moved his feet defensively and made plays, he deserved it. Singleton too. I'd like to think of those plays as the team throwing both a bone for their defensive contributions.
- The beginning of the fourth quarter belonged to Vesely. He was everywhere defensively, deflecting passes and using his active hands to disrupt plays. The Raptors were clearly a step slow and out of it offensively, but Vesely took advantage better than anyone on the Wizards' roster. His game clearly is enhanced by the energy of his teammates, and playing him in a part-time role suits him well.
- Saunders kept up the solid player rotations, giving Vesely and Mack plenty of playing time. It'll be interesting to see if that keeps up when the Wizards are in a tight spot late.
- Great play design by Saunders coming out of the timeout with the lead cut to 15. Booker screened for Blatche to go up high to set a screen for Wall, but instead of using the screen, Wall declined it. Normally, this wouldn't work, but all the other action involved with the play occupied Raptors defenders, giving Wall an easy lane to the rim, which led to the three-point play. That effectively ended the game.
For now, it's a time to celebrate and enjoy. Gif party in the comments!