Two concepts have been emphasized ad nauseam from Wizards coach Scott Brooks since Day 1: Defense and spacing. They faltered mightly at both in the opener but have had a few days since that debacle with the Atlanta Hawks to clean themselves up at the Memphis Grizzlies tonight (CSN, 7:30).
Before any player gets into any detail explaining their offensive role, "spacing" is always the key word.
"Our offense wasn’t great. I think our spacing needs to be better in terms of our offense," said Bradley Beal, who had 13 points but was limited by foul trouble in a 114-99 loss in Atlanta on Thursday. "It’s not our offense that’s the problem. We got to get stops. We got to be able to take pride in our one-on-one defense and our team defense and not get rattled when teams go on runs."
A perfect example comes here with the second unit. Andrew Nicholson and Jason Smith worked hard to get the Wizards an extra possession off a missed shot with them trailing 33-30. Nicholson tried to go right back up but didn't have the angle or a good look vs. Paul Millsap so he made the correct read. He passed out to Marcus Thornton and reposted and received the entry pass for an isolation.
But look what goes haywire with the spacing: Kelly Oubre cuts into the middle during the first sequence, doesn't get the ball and and fans out to the weakside corner with Smith. Smith tries to alleviate that spacing problem by cutting baseline to the ball simultaneously as Thornton cuts from the top. There's no passing angle and Thornton brings an extra defender (Thabo Sefolosha) into the paint who traps Nicholson. There even isn't an angle to relieve the pressure with an outlet to Trey Burke, who is at the top of the key. It all results in closed off passing lanes, turnover and transition bucket for Atlanta. If four defenders are in the paint, the play is to move the ball outside -- maybe split action between a guard and a forward to make the defense react -- and a ball reversal. But Nicholson has to have an outlet for the simple pass and his teammates have to read the floor correctly.
The Wizards led 81-80 in the fourth quarter but just wilted after that. The Hawks kept getting turnovers and open looks in return. When the Wizards were able to keep them in half-court sets, the dribble penetration to the paint was the culprit. It's a lot to address in a short period of time but with this being Brooks' first year the spacing issue was expected to take some time to grasp. A lot of the defensive stuff involves better effort -- sometimes multiple efforts -- to stop the ball.
In this one, it's not a set play either. Beal tries to catch the defense on its heels with the push after a made three by Millsap. First problem with his push is that the Hawks have all five defenders back and in position to load up to the ball. Second, when he drives he has nowhere to go and gets trapped in the air. Third, look at where Marcin Gortat and Oubre are cutting from at the top. They've helped Atlanta's mission to clog the lane. There isn't a passing angle and any one defender for the Hawks can cover two people. That's never a good thing and an easy steal for Sefolosha. Oubre would've been better suited sinking to the deep short corner -- not "surrounding the ball," as Brooks likes to say -- to spread the floor. Beal could've found him with a simple kick out for a wide-open three. The proper spacing would've made Atlanta pay for packing in the paint.
"We have to continue to believe in our spacing. We'd like our players to be aggressive and attacking without the crowding," Brooks said after Saturday's practice at FedEx Forum. "That allowed them to pressure us and get into the passing lanes because they were easily into our passing lanes becuase of the bad spacing. That's correctible."
Then he addressed the response to giveaways like that one. The effort to get back on transition in the fourth quarter faded as the Hawks kept feeding off their defense.
"Turnovers are going to happen. You can't compound the turnover by not running back on defense," Brooks said. "Because you turn the ball over doesn't mean they should get a layup or a wide-open three. That's definitely about multiple efforts, not compounding a mistake and making it a double mistake. That's something that was focused on today in our film ssession with our spacing. It's so critical not only to us but everybody in this league."