Here’s the best that could be said about the Washington Wizards’ defense after some losses: Things couldn’t get worse. Such statements often proved naïve. Saturday’s 102-88 win over the Brooklyn Nets provided a different, positive narrative, one shaped by how the team moves on without Dwight Howard.
Brooklyn’s arrival offered a perfect yardstick. Howard’s last full game of the season came Nov. 16 in the Nets’ 115-104 win in Washington. The center had 25 points and 17 rebounds, but Brooklyn carved up the Wizards defense with attacks directly on the basket, leading to 38 free throw attempts.
Howard fouled out in 27 minutes. Two days later, he played only seven against Portland. Fast forward to Friday. Howard underwent back surgery. The recovery timeline is at least 2-3 months. Washington struggled to find viable plans all season. Now it knew there’s no waiting for the eight-time All-Star.
The same Nets team visited Saturday, though admittedly a touch tired coming off a double-overtime loss to Memphis Friday. The Wizards met them with a much improved defensive focus, at least for one night, with their sleeker look. Brooklyn’s shot-making struggled from the start. It finished 37 percent from the field. The Nets made their free throws, but only took 25. The 88 points were easily the fewest allowed by Washington this season.
“I think we did a better job, especially against this team, compared to what we did last time,” Scott Brooks said after the Wizards ended their two-game losing streak. “Those straight line drives, we took those out. I thought the ball was contained. Our pick-and-roll coverage was good. We were inside and we close down some of those shooters. Got good effort from our guys.”
Those guys included the two men primarily tasked with replacing Howard, Thomas Bryant, and Markieff Morris.
They’re also not expected to supplant Howard’s presence solely. The insertion of Tomas Satoransky into the starting lineup for the first time this season provided additional energy on the perimeter. Otto Porter matched Morris with three steals, a sign of the active hands throughout Washington’s defense. Somebody has to play the 5. Bryant and Morris will primarily receive the call.
Saturday marked the seventh consecutive game without Howard, but the second where all involved truly knew this was no longer a dress rehearsal.
It now starts with Bryant, the 21-year-old thrust into action after receiving limited work early in his career.
“[Howard’s] replacement has been pretty good,” Nets coach Kenny Atkinson remarked pregame. “He’s athletic. He protects the rim. He runs the court. He’s kind of a modern-day center. I don’t know how Scotty thinks, but it seems like it fits.”
Bryant, an upbeat human with a willingness to learn, received lessons the previous two games from arguably the league’s top two centers.
“His last two starts, looking in at the jump ball circle with the referee about to throw the ball up, and he’s looking at (New Orleans’) Anthony Davis and (Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid,” Brooks said before Saturday’s game. “That’s pretty tough matchup. But I give him credit — he fought and he battled and he did the best that he can, that’s what you want.”
Nobody expects the 6-foot-10, 248-pound Bryant to push such star talents. He certainly put forth a fair effort, a common theme since entering the starting lineup.
“Just go out and play hard, doing what I can for my team no matter what,” Bryant told NBC Sports Washington in Philadelphia Friday. “If it’s a temporary set or a long-term set. You never know.”
He wasn’t the difference-maker Saturday. He wasn’t without mistakes even against a true contemporary in Brooklyn’s Jarrett Allen. In 19 minutes, Bryant grabbed seven rebounds. His presence nullified Allen, who Brooks credited with fueling Brooklyn’s win last month.
“Ever since [Scott Brooks] decided to start him, it’s been infinite energy,” Bradley Beal said. “I love playing with [Thomas].”
Morris, now thriving in his new sixth-man role, is the offensive half of the center pair. He also served as Washington’s closer against the Nets. Brooklyn went without a true center much of the fourth quarter. Morris took advantage with post-ups and plays around the rim. Fed often by John Wall inside, Morris made all seven of his attempts in the fourth, scoring 15 of his 20 points.
“He’s been in the second unit for us and closing out games for us,” Wall said of Morris, who had also had seven rebounds and two blocks.
None of Washington’s other center options played. Jeff Green sat with back tightness. Ian Mahinmi and Jason Smith just sat. The latter pair will receive minutes here and there going forward, but Bryant, Morris and Green offer better hope for the modern game. All the Wizards know for sure is Howard won’t be back for weeks. They’ll need more of what worked inside Saturday going forward.
“We’ve gotten a little complacent,” Smith told NBC Sports Washington Friday about the Wizards’ defense. “Nobody is going to save us. Everybody in this room, this is all we got. We have to come together and play as a team.”
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