WASHINGTON - Randy Wittman took his time in answering the first question after the Wizards' opening night loss to the New York Knicks, looking away from the media to collect himself after initially remarking, "it was a tough day."
After a whirlwind 24 hours that saw Wittman go from the Wizards comeback win in Milwaukee, to Minnesota for the funeral for his longtime colleague and friend, Flip Saunders, and finally back to Washington, he appeared exhausted Saturday evening after the game. There would be no rants on a "commitment to playing f***ing defense" or "next question"; just somber laments of the team's failure to contain a Knicks offense that put up 117 points.
While Wittman's demeanor was different, the content of his responses was familiar. "The commitment to defend is just not there," Wittman complained. "We can talk about a lot of other things and make excuses, but to score 110 points at home and lose by seven, that's what it boils down to, we're not committed right now and we've got to change that." For the second night in a row, the Wizards failed to contain an offense that had, at least last season, ranked among the worst in the NBA.
The Knicks' Carmelo Anthony, unperturbed by any pressure from the Wizards, was a big part of the Wizards problem. Whether it was Otto Porter or Jared Dudley covering him, Melo was able to create a sliver of space where he could get off a shot, scoring 37 points in total. The biggest of which came with 1:35 left on the clock in a tied game, where Anthony beat the shot clock and the dogged defensive effort of Jared Dudley to hit a just-inside-the-line long 2 to give the Knicks a 108-106 lead.
dang melo pic.twitter.com/kL1MFrgfCP— James Herbert (@outsidethenba) November 1, 2015
Melo wasn't the Wizards' only problem, though. The Wizards struggled to contain a balanced attack from the Knicks. Langston Galloway hit some big shots and Lance Thomas exploited several mismatches on Wizards' guards in the post.
During the team's first two games, the Wizards had the luxury of being able to cruise a bit, with Wall and Beal taking over in the fourth quarters of each to win the game. Wall and Beal made big plays again tonight, but the Wizards' defense couldn't stop Melo and the Knicks from doing the same.
For Wittman, it's a matter of the Wizards changing their approach to the game. "We've got to change our mindset," he said after the game. "We've talked a lot about offense .... I can't come in at halftime and listen to, we're talking more about what we're doing offensively and we gave up 59 points. So our mindset needs to change."
Bradley Beal concurred, saying: "We just didn't guard anybody. We were letting guys catch the ball too easily. We were just letting them do whatever they wanted offensively."
The Wizards will have to make adjustments to be able to defend at a level that Wittman finds acceptable. And for all of the justified (and unjustified) criticisms of Wittman during his tenure in Washington, he always manages to cobble together a solid defense with the players he's been given. It remains an open question of whether Wittman can make the Wizards' defense work while continuing to support the team's new fast-paced offense.
But this was just one game of 82, and, for Wittman, the failures during this one game will surely fade compared to the importance of the day that preceded it. Even six years after Flip Saunders was hired by the Wizards, and almost four years after he was let go, the Wizards still retain a connection with his coaching legacy. The Wizards were initially co-coached on Saturday by assistants Don Newman and Don Zierden.
Zierden's ties to Saunders date back to the former's days as a Division III point guard playing pickup ball against the much better D1 player Saunders and continued through the pair coaching together in the CBA and at NBA stops in Minnesota, Detroit and Washington. As he told the Washington Post in 2009, "Most of my coaching games in my pro career have been with Flip, and I think it's the same way with him," Zierden said. "We've really been together at every stage."
Delayed by his friend's funeral, Wittman eventually made it to the game by the end of the first quarter, completing a grueling day with a grueling game that lasted over two and a half hours and saw 62 foul calls. But for Wittman, whether to coach the game or not was never in question. With emotion in his voice once again, he explained why he came back from Minnesota last night: "You know what? Flip would have wanted me to coach. He would have never wanted me to miss a game based on him, I can guarantee you that." He ended the press conference where it began. "It was tough. It was a tough day."