WASHINGTON - Going into their matchup against the Hawks, the Wizards had lost four of their last five games. They lost games they shouldn’t have, blew leads both big and small, and were outclassed in one way or another by every opponent they faced.
Their defense was in shambles. They allowed 111.3 points per 100 possessions in that five game stretch. Even their offense, which had been so reliable for them throughout the last few months, started to break down.
Reeling doesn’t even feel like the proper term to describe where the Wizards had been over the last week or so. No, they were reaching. Clawing for answers that were not immediately visible or readily apparent.
And for much of Wednesday’s game, it seemed as if the team would remain on that track. The offense was a train wreck throughout the first half. Through the first six minutes, the Wizards scored eight points. The team missed 13 of their first 17 shots and struggled to convert routine fast break opportunities.
They struggles continued throughout the first half. To top it all off, John Wall’s first half consisted of going 0-8 from the field with two turnovers and two missed free throw attempts.
But the Wizards were still in the game at halftime, only down 46-40. Scott Brooks saw an opportunity.
“I just kept telling them ‘Keep defending’,” Brooks said. “They had only 20 points [in the first quarter]. Being down only four after only scoring 16? I’ll take that.”
The Wizards played their best defensive game in a long time. They held the Hawks to just 40 percent shooting and a Defensive Rating of 96.4.
Brooks said, previously, when shots were not falling, Washington would stop defending. That didn’t happen against the Hawks. He kept on his team, he said, pushing them to defend. Rather than torching their opponent from deep for a come-from-behind victory, they slowly turned them inside out defensively while they worked their offense back into form.
From a coaching standpoint, defense was the key to the victory. That goes without saying. But for the players? There was another element at work that had been missing. “We’re getting back to having fun,” John Wall said.
The Wizards have not been playing at the same high level they had been used to seeing themselves at, Wall said. That is no secret. Despite their wins on the road earlier in the month, the Wizards hadn’t been the same team. They dug holes for themselves and had to struggle to pull themselves out of them.
But against Atlanta, it was all about fun. Especially in the fourth quarter when the Wizards went on a 19-5 run over a four minute span to take a 96-84 lead over Atlanta with just a few minutes to go.
Within that stretch? A dish from Wall to Beal for a three with a bit of hubris on top. A lob to Bradley Beal after a defensive stop. Two steals leading to easy dunks for both Beal and Wall. Fun, fast plays that the Wizards are capable of making at any time. The building was filled with energy and the players felt it.
“We were missing our swag. Just our energy, our fun of the game. Everything is just so tense,” Beal said. “We just need to relax and have fun playing the game.”
The plays on defense leading to easy offense made it easier for the players to catch their rhythm, Beal said, including Wall. The team has to be aggressive down the stretch to keep their offense from stalling, he said, but also has to play defense the way they did against Atlanta to reach their goals.
And the Wizards have another goal in mind: 50 games. The franchise has never seen that kind of success. As small as it sounds, it is a big deal to the players.
“That’s our ultimate goal. It’s going to be tough,” Wall said. “We’ve got eight games on the road. We just got to do a good job of closing out.”
Wednesday’s fourth quarter against the Hawks should serve as the blueprint for the team going through the rest of the season into the playoffs. It’s March. The season is slow and teams are ready to begin playing games that mean something.
It’s tough, but if the Wizards continue to play with their “swag,” as Beal said, they’ll have nothing to worry about.