Defense has been such a point of emphasis for the Wizards early this season that even when head coach Scott Brooks is asked about their offense, he often circles back to the other end of the floor. He has said over and over that offense is not their problem, it's focus and consistency on defense, particularly late in games.
On Monday night at the Verizon Center, the Wizards' game against the Suns appeared to be heading down a familiar path. After scoring just 46 points in the first half, Phoenix exploded for 34 in the third quarter on 13-of-26 shooting, including 5-of-8 from three.
Despite entering the game as one of the league's worst three-point shooting teams, the Suns were sinking them from all around the perimeter. Emerging star Devin Booker led the charge with 11 points in the frame, including three threes.
The same quarter saw Otto Porter go down with a right hip injury. Brooks turned to Kelly Oubre, Jr. to take his place and take Booker as his assignment.
The odds were mounted against the Wizards until the closing moments of the third quarter. Then, everything changed.
"We let them feel good about their offense…they got hot. They made shots in transition and easy shots," Brooks said. "I thought late in the third quarter, under two minutes when Marcus [Thornton] had a couple of threes that got us back going into the fourth quarter. Then we also had the two stops to back that up."
That sequence flipped the game in the Wizards' favor, particularly on defense. They clamped down and held the Suns to just 21 points in the fourth quarter. Phoenix shot just 8-of-24 in the final frame.
The Suns were held scoreless in the final 87 seconds as the Wizards secured a 106-101 victory. The final two minutes saw John Wall and Marcin Gortat make key blocks on Eric Bledsoe, both sending his layup attempts into the crowd.
"We really locked in the fourth quarter," power forward Markieff Morris said. "Down the stretch we made some good key stops and got the victory."
"Lock in. That's all it is," said shooting guard Bradley Beal, who scored a career-high 42 points. "Defense is just a want, wanting to go out there and put in the effort and the intensity. We can't control whether the ball goes in all the time, but you can control how hard you play on the defensive end. I think we all accepted the challenge that coach brought to us over the last couple days and really applied it tonight."
The fourth quarter looked like a breakthrough for the Wizards defensively, a culmination of what they have been preaching over the last few weeks while stumbling out to a slow start. But carrying success over from game to game has been easier said than done this season. The Wizards will get another chance for their first consecutive wins of the season on Friday in Orlando.