During the Wizards' recent 10-game surge, in which they have won seven games and vaulted back into the playoff race, there have been many reasons for their near-overnight transformation. The most dramatic change between now and the previous 36 games of this season, however, may be on the defensive end.
The Wizards, for much of this season, have been dreadful on defense. They are 23rd in the league in defensive rating (111.1) and have allowed the second-most points per game (115.8) of any team. The latter has them on pace to allow more points than any Wizards or Bullets team has since 1970.
But lately, they have flipped the narrative. In their last 10 games going back to Dec. 29, the Wizards are fourth in the NBA in defensive rating (106.4).
On Monday, they held the Pistons to only 87 points, a season-low for a Washington opponent. That included a 34-point first half for Detroit, the fewest the Wizards have given up in a half this season.
The previous season-low for points scored in one half against the Wizards was set in their last game when the Knicks scored 37 in the second half on Thursday. That means the Wizards gave up only 71 points across four quarters, the equivalent of a full game.
The Knicks and Pistons are 23rd and 25th in scoring this season, respectively, but that remains an impressive stretch for the Wizards' defense. They are locking up opponents and coming away with victories.
"Our defense, overall, has just been better," forward Jeff Green said after the 101-87 win over the Pistons. "We’ve been communicating and not allowing teams to get a lot of offensive rebounds, forcing turnovers and getting out in transition. We’ve been on the same page defensively."
Against the Pistons, the Wizards allowed only two offensive rebounds, tying the fewest they've surrendered this season. It helped the Pistons were missing Andre Drummond, but that remains no small feat for the Wizards, who give up more offensive boards (11.7/g) than any team.
Like Green, head coach Scott Brooks mentioned the rebounds after Monday's win.
"We give ourselves a chance to win every night if we can win the rebounding game," he said.
Indeed, the Wizards are a perfect 11-0 this season when they win the rebounding margin. In games they either lose the rebounding margin or tie, they are 9-26.
As the Wizards have shown all season, rebounding is a crucial part of defense. Forcing an opponent to miss a shot is only part of the battle. The stop is completed once the defensive rebound is reeled in.
Defense and rebounding have been major problems for the Wizards this season and both deal with effort. Because of that, Brooks and his players have often lamented a lack of want-to in the Wizards' lowest moments.
Recently, the effort has been there. It probably has something to do with the desperation of losing three key players - John Wall, Markieff Morris and Dwight Howard - to injuries. With what's left on their roster, they don't have the luxury of starting slow or losing focus in games. The margin for error is thin.
But the Wizards' improvement on defense can also be credited to a midseason roster makeover done by their front office. They changed the team's defensive DNA with guys like Trevor Ariza, Chasson Randle, and Sam Dekker. In these past 10 games, all three have posted defensive ratings under 105. They have infused the Wizards' rotation with a blue-collar approach to team defense.
Ariza, of course, deserves most of the credit. He has built a 15-year career off hard-nosed perimeter defense.
This week, Brooks explained how Ariza's discipline has been integral in the Wizards' recent turnaround.
"Trevor definitely helps," Brooks said. "He's not going to get a stop every time, but he's going to give you great effort. He's not going to gamble a lot. He's not going to take the immature chances that might lead to a steal and a dunk in transition, but most likely it's not. He doesn't take those gambles."
Defense and the Wizards have not been synonymous for most of this season. But over the past 10 games, they have played with a new identity and it might be the key to saving their season.
MORE WIZARDS NEWS