While the news on John Wall's rehab continues to trend in the right direction, the exact opposite has been the case for the Washington Wizards' peformance in recent games.
They have lost five of their last seven games and only have 14 left before the playoffs begin. They lost to the Timberwolves on Tuesday night after leading by 10 in the fourth quarter. Now they head to Boston for a bout with the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference.
What stood out about Tuesday's loss is something head coach Scott Brooks has been harping on for days. They once again gave up too many points in the paint.
The Timberwolves dropped 64 paint points, the fourth game in a row the Wizards have allowed 60 or more. They gave up 76 to the Miami Heat in their previous game, a blowout loss on the road.
The Wizards aren't exactly elite at preventing paint points, as they rank 20th in the NBA with 45.6 per game. But giving up 64, as they did to Minnesota, is a major difference.
As for why the Wizards are allowing so many buckets in the lane, Brooks pointed to several things.
“We're getting beat on backdoors, we're getting beat off the dribble. If you do that, you can't expect your bigs to protect you every time. You got to guard, you got to guard the ball," he said.
Basically, the Wizards can't stop penetration at the perimeter. The Wizards do not feature a prolific rim protector and as a result require more emphasis on their guards and wings stopping the ball.
When their perimeter defense is leaky, as it has been in recent games, it puts too much pressure on Marcin Gortat, Markieff Morris and Ian Mahinmi, who do not have the shotblocking skills to clean up the messes of others.
All of this is a familiar refrain, as that was a major problem for the Wizards earlier this season. Things were cleaned up for a while once Wall went down with his left knee injury because a healthy Tomas Satoransky represented an upgrade over a hobbled Wall. But Satoransky and the Wizards' guards are not finding the same success anymore.
The frustration was clear for Brooks who ended his postgame press conference abruptly on Tuesday. He said few words, but mentioned something else that was reminiscent of a few months ago.
"Defensive mistakes, we're continually making them," he said. "We got to get stops, and we got to stop worrying about scoring.”
When the Wizards were at their lowest points months ago, the idea of "worrying about scoring" was a common theme in different variations. Some players suggested others were selfishly chasing individual stats. Overall, the concept of focusing on scoring points to the detriment of playing defense was consistently referenced.
As the ugly habits are returning for the Wizards, Wall is approaching a major milestone in his recovery from arthroscopic left knee surgery. He is set to practice as early as Friday following days of shooting routines and, most recently, five-on-zero drills.
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Once he practices, it will only be a matter of time before he is returning to game action. There are just a few more steps he needs to take and he will likely be back within the next two weeks.
The Wizards just have to make do for a little while longer. At one point, when the Wizards started out 10-3 following Wall's injury, debates broke out about whether the Wizards are better without Wall. Right now, they could clearly use a boost and his return would qualify.
The end of Wall's recovery is inching closer, but they are not in clear. The good news is that despite losing five of seven, the Wizards haven't lost much ground in the playoff race. They were as high as fourth, but currently sit fifth in the East. Though they are lined up to play LeBron James and the Cavs in the first round if the playoffs began today, fifth is not bad at all.
Also worth noting is the fact the Wizards' magic number to make the playoffs is just seven games. Even though they lost to the Wolves on Tuesday, that number dropped by one thanks to the Pistons losing to the Jazz.
But the Wizards need to turn things around before they do suffer real damage in the standings. Wall is getting closer, but he's not there yet. Those remaining need to get back to what made them successful during the initial part of his absence. If they don't, more urgency will be created for Wall's return and that's not what they want.
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