As the Wizards have shown this year, and really since the beginning of last season, there is one particular type of NBA team that gives them trouble. It's the team that plays collectively, with toughness and an edge on defense.
The Wizards allow their opponents to set the tone and the aggressive ones that punch them first usually don't get a punch back.
So far this season, blue-collar teams like the Grizzlies, Clippers and Nets have given the Wizards fits. In those losses, Washington was just trying to keep up, hopelessly reacting on too many plays just a half-or-full-step slower than they needed to.
Though the Blazers are a high-scoring team led by big-name stars, they possess the qualities that expose the Wizards when they are in their most listless form. On Sunday, Portland came out with want-to on defense and a commitment to moving the ball to find open shooters on offense.
That simple combination was too much for the Wizards, who let the game slip away early, trailing by as many as 20 points in the first quarter alone.
It was hard to watch for everyone on the Washington side; for fans, the coaches and also the players who are losing patience as they grasp for answers to what will fix their persistent woes.
The prevailing message from head coach Scott Brooks' postgame press conference and from the locker room was that they are actively searching for a solution, but that they have no clear sense what that solution is.
"It's embarrassing,” Brooks said, citing effort and energy like he often has this season. “Just trying to figure that out. It's on me."
"I'm not sure. We have to figure something out," forward Markieff Morris said.
"Honestly, I really don't have an answer," forward Jeff Green said, genuinely perplexed.
As the Wizards wilt at 5-11 and in last place, the general consensus from those on the court and the bench seems to be that no major changes need to be made. Brooks suggested he needs to find "five guys on the court that are playing for their team." But he says that all the time and has ever since he took the job before the 2016-17 season.
It doesn't mean wholesale changes are coming.
Guard Bradley Beal pleaded the fifth when asked if trades or firings need to be made.
"I have no idea. All I can do is my job and just like everybody else, and just come in and try to get better every day. At the end of the day, that's Ted [Leonsis'] job, Ernie [Grunfeld's] job to make those decisions," he said.
Morris and guard John Wall each expressed confidence in the players already on the roster.
“I don't think so," Wall said of potentially breaking up the core. "We can still figure it out."
"It's not time for a fire sale," Morris told NBC Sports Washington.
The best insight into what is plaguing the Wizards came from backup guard Austin Rivers. Though he can't put a finger on it, either, he sees some bad signs.
"Our team is like loaded with talent and we're losing game after game. You just start to question it," he said.
"Guys are like tentative now when they're on the floor. You can see it. You guys can watch it and see it. It doesn't even take a basketball expert to watch... When you lose, guys start getting unsure. We're running and our spacing is terrible. It's just a snowball effect."
Rivers, like Green, went out of his way to say Brooks wasn't the root of it, that it's on the players. He also highlighted his backcourt partner Tomas Satoransky as someone who was exempt from their issues.
"Sato is definitely not the problem. Sato doesn't do anything wrong," Rivers said.
Satoransky was one of the few Wizards players who came out of Sunday's defeat with reasons to hold their chin up walking into the locker room afterwards. He had 10 points, seven assists and was +22 in the box score.
Like Satoransky, Kelly Oubre Jr. played well. He had 19 points, four rebounds, four assists and three blocks. He was +14. Others like Thomas Bryant and Troy Brown Jr., two youngsters who only played when the game was out of hand, provided a spark of energy off the bench and helped cut the Blazers lead down to single digits late in the game after Portland led by as many as 29.
Brooks has been wary of major lineup adjustments since he arrived in Washington, but it's never been quite this bad. At 5-11, this start is even worse than two years ago, his first season on the job, when they rallied to win 49 games.
If their losing continues, Brooks will have to do something drastic at some point. Maybe that is moving Oubre into the starting lineup and taking Morris out to help guide the second unit. Morris could thrive as a small-ball center, while Oubre could help set a tone defensively with the starters.
Oubre is their most energetic and active defender. Perhaps that would rub off on Wall, Beal and Otto Porter Jr.
It's clear the Wizards need to change something and the rotation is the logical first place to start. Rivers, for one, wonders if things will get better if they simply stick to the current plan.
"You're just like 'stay with it and it will turn around.' But when? You're digging yourself a farther and farther hole," he said.
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CAPITAL ONE ARENA -- NBA franchises go stale. It happens.
Setbacks occur on and off the court. Some obstacles, like falling short of playoff expectations, might shake a franchise to its core. Others fall back on an established ethos that sets expectations and ideals so that when tough times arrive, restoring balance isn’t arduous.
The Portland Trailblazers believe their culture keeps them flying high.
Portland started a run of five consecutive postseason appearances in 2013 after a combined 61 wins the prior two seasons. Twice it won a round, but never more than one.
Last season seemed like a chance for another series triumph, but the No. 3 seed was stunned by New Orleans during a four-game sweep. Such frustration might send some teams into a tizzy, lead outsiders to call for heads. The Blazers kept their cool. The core remained.
Following Sunday’s 119-109 win over the Wizards, Portland (11-5) moved percentage points ahead of Golden State for first in the Western Conference.
“I think it just shows the character of our team,” All-Star guard Damian Lillard said of Portland’s resiliency shortly after scoring 40 points against Washington. “That’s from our coaches to the training staff to players on the team. We enjoy the process of what we’re building together. We’re committed to each other. That’s the biggest thing. We all want to have success and we all know that doesn’t happen overnight.”
The turn began in 2012 with the arrival of several leaders, including Lillard, general manager Neil Olshey and coach Terry Stotts. Another foundational move came in 2013 with the selection of a second consecutive first-round guard, C.J. McCollum.
That backcourt pairing, similar to the Wizards’ duo of John Wall and Bradley Beal, became the headliners, the tone-setters. They learned how to win, how to lead.
“We have a lot of good guys on the team. Damian and C.J. are good friends. They’re both very talented players,” Portland coach Terry Stotts said. “They complement each other well. I don’t know. Maybe I just take it for granted, but I try not to. We’ve got really good culture and it’s led by those two guys.”
Forward Meyers Leonard, Portland’s second lottery pick after Lillard in 2012, also promoted the power of the franchise’s values in keeping the team from imploding when struggles arise.
“What’s expected of you every single day, both as a person and a player. Guys show up to the facility ready to work. It’s a good environment. Everyone enjoys being there. Everyone works hard. … Getting work in before practice, getting work in after practice. Being willing to compete in practice and never take anything personal because we know we want to get better. That all translates to the game.”
While the Blazers talked cohesion, the Wizards spent another evening looking for answers. Washington, which trailed 32-12 and by 21 at halftime, fell to 5-11.
“It was terrible,” Beal said.
“You don't win games by just playing, you win games by competing,” Wizards coach Scott Brooks said. “And you win games by competing for your teammates, and you don't win games any other way. There is no team in this league that can win games if you don't compete for your teammates. And I got to find five guys that are willing to do that.”
Washington started the season 1-6 with its only victory coming at Portland Oct. 22, 125-124 in overtime. Markieff Morris led the Wizards with 28 points, and Otto Porter blocked Lillard’s potential game-winning shot at the buzzer. Portland’s starting guards shot a dismal 12-for-46 from the field, though Lillard still scored 29.
He wasn’t particularly efficient in the rematch either (12 for 29 field goals) but some positive aspects continued. Lillard’s tenacity showed especially Sunday with Portland coming off back-to-back losses. In both games, Lillard made 13 of 15 free throws. Whether the shots were falling or not, he decided this was a game where laying back wasn’t an option.
“We wanted to come in and be sharp. I knew that being a leader on this team, I had to come out here and kind of enforce that and impose my will and be aggressive and assertive and live with the result,” Lillard said. “That was my mindset coming in and I was going to keep my foot on that gas until there was no time left to make sure we got it done.”
They did and now sit in the reified air, looking down at Golden State in the standings. From the Blazers’ perspective, this result wasn’t about a good night’s work, but long-running connections.
“The more you connect on a personal level with your teammates, your coaches, with everybody the more success you’re going to have. The more you’re gonna want to work,” Leonard said. “The more you’re going to compete as hard as you possibly can. It all comes back to culture. When we get free agents, it’s what’s expected. It’s fun to be around. It’s fun to come to work. That’s what I would say is the biggest thing.”
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