Sixty-four games into the season and with the playoffs looking more like a long shot, a lot of problems persist for the Wizards. Perhaps the biggest one is the inability or reluctance to adjust in-game which would fall directly on the shoulders of coach Randy Wittman. Jared Dudley, and to a lesser extent John Wall, have said it before but given Friday's listless loss to the Utah Jazz their words are carrying more weight.
Tonight, they'll close a three-game road swing at the Denver Nuggets, who humiliated the Wizards so badly in a 117-113 victory on Jan. 28 that it forced Dudley to slam the locker-room door shut and call a players-only meeting. A loss here this trip ends 0-3 and extends the Wizards' losing streak to five games.
"I thought the pick-and-roll coverage, they hurt us all night. We tried to ice them," said Dudley, referring to the concept of forcing the ball-handler away from the screen, "keep the big back, don't let their bigs get behind us. They made tough shots, they made easy shots, they got what they wanted. They got dropoffs, they got to the free throw line, they got into the bonus early.
"With that said we got to be able to make adjustments on the fly. The NBA is about that. We gave them the same coverage the whole night. With them, they just kept feeding off it. On a given night, NBA players, you got to throw them different looks we did a poor job of that."
There's no need to name names to get what Dudley means after that 114-93 loss in Salt Lake City, where former Wizards guard Shelvin Mack set a career-high with 27 points, Gordon Hayward had 18 points on just seven shots and Raul Neto finished with 12 points on just four shots.
The Wizards (30-34) don't adapt quick enough, if at all (see point No. 3 on why Wizards will not make the playoffs). When the Boston Celtics shocked them at Verizon Center, getting a layup on their final play of the game for a 119-117 victory on Jan. 16, it was because coach Brad Stevens knew how the inbound play would be defended based on the Wizards' predictability. One player in particular admitted they were caught off-guard because the Celtics ran a set that resulted in Jae Crowder getting the winning layup because they'd never previously seen it run in their film study. How often do the Wizards surprise opponents like this?
Go back to the 121-115 loss Jan. 6 to the Cleveland Cavaliers, when the short-handed Wizards did everything right but defend. Realizing the Wizards were switching everything 1-4, Kyrie Irving and LeBron James simply got the matchups they wanted in screen-rolls and broke them down in isolations. Irving had 10 consecutive points in the fourth quarter en route to 32 to break open a tie. The Wizards never altered their coverages, doubled the ball out of anyone's hands or mixed up where the double-teams would come from to confuse the ball-handler. Giving the opponent the same look haunted them in Utah.
"They scored the basketball. They got to the free-throw line. We were taking the ball out the net pretty much most of the night," Wall said. "Pick-and-roll coverage, really. We were staying 2 for 2 and the guys were just getting to the basket, getting to floaters and stuff. We were worried about throwing it back to Derrick Favors and (Rudy) Gobert for lobs. Guards were getting layups. Then we were denying so much trying to chase and deny they used it against us when they handed the ball off. Their bigs set their screens, they were getting downhill getting to the free-throw line or making wide open 3s, shooting 19 free throws in the quarter that basically solves the game no matter what."
In other words, when playing denial defense, the backdoors are wide open when moving off the ball. Denying works when the ball-handling of a team is sub-par or if the player being pressed doesn't make good decisions under duress. If they beat that initial pressure, however, that creates a numbers mismatch going to the basket. The defense suddenly is disadvantaged. Someone ultimately ends up with an open shot and the Jazz made 56.7% of theirs.
It takes a team with an incredibly low basketball IQ to continually be beaten with the same scheme for four quarters. If the opposing coach, in this case Quin Snyder, doesn't change how his team attacks he'll switch the personnel. Maybe both.
For his part, Wittman points to the same issues that he saw before the All-Star break. He wants effort first. Without it, his reasoning goes, it doesn't matter what schemes he implements because the results won't change. Of course, it also could be players such as Dudley and Wall believe they're not being put in the best position to succeed and the lack of maximum effort is a byproduct of their disenchantment.
"That might be a record, 114 points on 15 assists, which means they're taking us off the dribble," Wittman said of the Jazz. "Everything is off the dribble. We can't keep anybody in front of us. I don't think we went out with any kind of desire."
Regardless of who is correct, this isn't the mentality or posture of a playoff team. The Wizards' streak of appearances will end at two and they'll enter the offseason with a coach who is only partially guaranteed for 2016-17 and a roster full of free agents who won't return.
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