Long before training camp began in Richmond, Va., almost eight months ago, first-year coach Scott Brooks preached defense. His track record for developing young players and his style were attractive to president Ernie Grunfeld, but the Wizards had lost that hard-nosed edge in a 41-41 season.
The defensive identity that was missing during a 2-8 start appeared to be put to bed when the Wizards entered the All-Star break on an 18-3 streak. Alas, it has returned and there aren't a lot of regular-season games left to correct what's wrong as the playoffs draw near. The latest example came in the first half Tuesday when the Charlotte Hornets -- the 14th most efficient offensive team per 100 possessions -- scored 63 points and shot 60.5%.
Brooks chewed out his team in the locker room and they played with a desire on the defensive end that can elevate them to the conference finals. They managed a 118-111 victory, though that's still too many points to allow in any game but especially against a mid-level offensive team.
"I coach with my heart. The time I talk to the players during halftime or timeouts is my honest view of the game, what's happening. I just basically said direct and to the point, we're not giving a good enough effort," Brooks said after Wednesday's practice before departing for tonight's game with the N.Y. Knicks. "We think we can turn it on and off. It's unacceptable. Can't do that. Good teams don't do that. We've been a good team all year by committing to defending and playing for each other. That was the message. I didn't raise my voice. It was just very direct. and I give our guys a lot of credit. We came out in the third qurter and responded."
Regarded as a "players' coach" after his seven-year stint with the Oklahoma City Thunder, Brooks has shown a more authoritarian edge when necessary. Kelly Oubre paid the price when he lost playing time for being unprepared. Ian Mahinmi has squeezed out playing time from Marcin Gorat as his rim protection and frontline help has been inconsistent.
Gortat was a key factor in the second-half turnaround in Charlotte, indicating he may have gotten Brooks message. It was one that Markieff Morris called "militaristic' during mini-camp when he visited the Las Vegas summer league team in July.
In points allowed per 100 possessions, the Wizards' defense is 20th at 106.9. They get 32.6 defensive rebounds per game which is just 23rd-best.
"It's not always going to be easy conversations. It's not going to be always positive," Brooks, who played in the NBA for 10 years, on how he relates to his own players. "You want guys that respect the job and respect coaching and that's what we have.
"I have a lot of respect for the players. Been there before. That doesn't give me an edge over the guys who have never played. ... I also understand they need to be pushed and demand exellence from them. I always believe the best players are the self-motivated players. But even the self-motivated players need a push every now and then."
The second unit has been efficient on the defensive end since the All-Star break. In 12 games used, the lineup of Brandon Jennings, Bojan Bogdanovic, Oubre, Jason Smith and Mahinmi hold opponents to 38.8% overall shooting, 30.8% from three-point range,
The starting five, however, has more work to do though it's a much larger sample size with them playing together all season (69 games). John Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter, Morris and Gortat allow 47% overall shooting and 35.8% three-point shooting.