WASHINGTON -- In the opening minutes of the Wizards' game against the Cavaliers on Friday night, Cleveland center Jarrett Allen scored 11 of his team's 13 points. Four of his five baskets were assisted by Darius Garland and three were on pick-and-rolls executed by them as a duo.
When it was over, the Wizards had suffered a blowout loss, one in which they trailed by 36 points. Allen had 28 points and 13 rebounds, while Garland added 32 points, 10 assists and eight boards.
During that inital stretch, the Cavs found something that worked and just kept going to it, sensing the Wizards were not able to stop them. They set the tone with their pick-and-roll and left the Wizards searching for answers in the wake of one of their worst defeats of the season so far.
"It was a lot of miscommunication. We had some guys thinking we were doing something and some guys thinking we were doing something else," guard Raul Neto said. "You don’t have that connection that we need on defense that we need to play the pick-and-roll."
Head coach Wes Unseld Jr. has seen his team's pick-and-roll defense show cracks in a series of games recently, as their defense has slipped as a whole. Through their first 14 games this season, Washington had the fourth-best defensive rating in the NBA. In the nine games since, they have ranked 25th in the league, with their number for the season overall dropping to 13th.
Their struggles defending the pick-and-rolls have been part of that.
"It's a vast chunk of the game, whether it’s the initial action or a play after the action breaks down," Unseld Jr. said. "Teams flow into it. You may guard on average 50-plus pick-and-rolls in one night. So, if we’re not clean in our coverage, our spots, if our communication is slow, it’s going to be problematic."
The Wizards have shown the ability to guard pick-and-rolls well at times this season. On the year, they still rank third in points-per-possession allowed for pick-and-roll ball-handlers (0.77), per NBA tracking data. They are 17th in defending the roller (1.11).
Before arriving in Washington, Unseld Jr. was the associate head coach for the Denver Nuggets. Last season, they led the NBA in PPP allowed to pick-and-roll handlers (0.84). Technically, the Wizards have been even more efficient so far this season.
Unseld Jr. feels confident the Wizards can get back on track defensively because his players have shown what they are capable of. It also makes it easier to hammer home his principles as he can show them examples on film of their own success from just a few weeks ago.
"I think it just validates what we’re talking about. That’s where you find the consistency. You see that every night. It doesn’t happen all the time, obviously," he said.
Neto explained how the Cavs offered a unique test when it comes to pick-and-rolls. In addition to Garland at guard, they also have a savvy veteran in Ricky Rubio. And Allen is part of a uniquely large Cavs frontcourt which also features 2021 third overall pick Evan Mobley Jr.
As for what went wrong against them, Neto offered specifics.
"We didn’t press the ball enough. They were playing with a lot of freedom and that gives the ball-handler all the options they want. They can shoot the floater, they can hit the corner, they can hit the roller," he said.
All of those things will be kept in mind as they move forward. Given their recent shortcomings, teams will certainly try to test them in that regard.