The pre-game plan for this particular article went something like this: Focus on any changes, coaching or otherwise, for the sliding Washington Wizards in Sunday night’s meeting with the New York Knicks.
Here’s the most significant difference: They won.
That’s not sarcasm or a jab. Just like a slumping shooter needs to see one fall through the net, struggling teams require a victory of any kind just for a reminder of success. The Wizards did just that for a 108-95 triumph over the Knicks. Despite some second-half struggles against the try-hard, but overmatched New York squad, Washington improved to 2-7. Strategic tweaks were involved.
Scott Brooks strongly suggested changes would come following Friday’s 134-111 loss to Oklahoma City. One happened organically as Otto Porter (toe) was not available. Others occurred as Washington's head coach desired.
The rotation shrunk and not solely because Brooks didn’t replace Porter in the rotation. Only eight players entered the game in the first half. Jason Smith’s stint early in the fourth quarter briefly upped the rotation to nine. Seven players went at least 24 minutes. Brooks stated pregame, yet again, that it’s too early in the season for the panic button, but at 1-7, he went with a playoff rotation.
Ian Mahinmi never took off his warm-ups even though the Knicks kept a traditional center on the court throughout the game. Brooks made no apologies for sitting his veteran backup. The reality is Mahinmi’s limited offense makes him a liability on one end of the court, while his penchant for picking up fouls does the same on the other.
The return of Dwight Howard (10 points, 10 rebounds in 31 minutes) means Brooks has an interior option on the court often. If the Coach also wants to keep small-ball lineups for more than cameos, Mahinmi must sit. He did Sunday.
Without Mahinmi, Brooks used Markieff Morris at the five with the second unit* opening the second quarter. This is new for the 2018-19, but a throwback look to the 49-win 2016-17 campaign.
(* Kelly Oubre Jr. replaced Porter in the starting lineup, but returned to his usual spot with the reserves opening the second quarter.)
It’s unclear why Brooks went away from this scenario last season. Forget just Morris. Brooks often went without any starter opening the second quarter and sometimes the fourth. That trend largely continued this season.
As for Morris, it’s apparent why blends nicely with the reserves.
When sharing the court with All-Stars Wall or Beal, the backups can become overly deferential. Morris, the power forward with the Philadelphia swagger, is one of the guys. He leads, but his presence doesn’t dominate.
“I do (like it) because I feel like I’m out there coaching,” Morris told NBC Sports Washington following the win. “I feel like I’m out there being the extra leader that those guys need. I can help structure it the right way. You can see my passing ability, my playmaking ability also.”
Morris played the entire second quarter and scored 12 of his 16 points. Though he often faces the basket on offense or handles the ball above the arc, Morris went to his post-up game against smaller defenders as the Wizards took advantage of the Knicks switching 1 thru 5.
“They were switching a lot, so I was trying to be aggressive,” Morris told NBC Sports Washington. “I felt (like) the last game I wasn’t as aggressive as I normally am.”
We’ll see if Brooks sticks with this Morris plan. There’s mounting evidence over the past season-plus as to why one of the starters with the second unit is ideal.
We know Brooks liked what he saw Sunday.
“Keef was really active tonight,” Brooks said. “I thought it worked.”
The defensive intensity also went up several notches compared to Friday’s debacle. The Wizards entered Sunday allowing a league-worst 123.9 points per game. Washington held New York to 95, the first time an opponent stayed below 100 this season.
Considering the opponent, Morris wasn’t ready to celebrate the achievement.
“No disrespect to the Knicks, but they’re a young team trying to find themselves. I think we’re supposed to do that,” Morris said of holding New York under 100 points. “When you do that to the better offensive teams, I think that’s when it will count.”
The Wizards stayed back defensively against the Thunder, often not engaging until the ball was below the 3-point arc. Against the Knicks, they extended the defensive out further on the floor. New York scored 17 points on 6 of 22 shooting (27.3 percent) in the opening period.
“Energy, man. Just came in and brought the energy from the jump, not waiting,” Kelly Oubre Jr. told NBC Sports Washington. “That’s pretty much what we have to do."
That the Knicks rallied from 77-64 with 4:01 left in the third quarter to tie the score 86-86 with 9:13 remaining eventually meant heavy minutes for Beal (40) and John Wall (38). That the two All-Stars were needed for such lengthy stretches against these Knicks sends up a warning flag. The Wizards ultimately sealed the needed win, their first since Oct. 22, with a 16-2 run fueled by a stout defensive effort.
Don't give the Wizards a pass for some of their lifeless performances this season, but it’s fair to note that entering Sunday they had the fifth toughest strength of schedule (.568). The Knicks, now 3-6, were only the second team the Wizards faced this season with a losing record as of Sunday. Another sub .500 team comes Tuesday when Washington kicks off a three-game road swing at 2-7 Dallas. Orlando (3-6) and Miami (3-5) follow.
This is no time for relaxing. The Wizards remain in a hole. At least Morris and company could exhale just a little.
“These are the games that we must take care of,” Morris said. “It was a good start. Getting a little bit of weight off our shoulder.”
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