Monday, January 21, 2008

With a Little D, Wiz Sweep Big D

Defense wins championships. It's the reason the Spurs and Pistons show up in the conference and NBA finals year in and year out. It's also the reason the Suns and the Mavericks, despite their high-flying offenses, can't seem to find their spot in the league's elite fraternity. Monday, against those Dallas Mavericks, Washington showed what a little hard-nosed defense can do for a team trying to prove it at least belongs in the conversation about the NBA's top teams.

In a Martin Luther King, Jr. Day matinee at the Phone Booth, the Wizards lock
ed down on the defensive end to take down the Mavs, 102-84. The win completed Washington's first season sweep of Dallas in 11 years. Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison were their usual stellar stat-sheet-filling selves. Tough Juice finished with a team-high 25 points, nine boards and five assists while Jamison had 23, eight and three.

Most notable, however, was Washington's success on the defensive
end. Butler, who came into Monday third in the league in steals with 2.3 per game, had five pilfers as the Wizards (22-17) converted 16 Dallas turnovers into 25 points. Washington had 11 steals as a team and constantly frustrated the Mavs by getting hands in passing lanes and turning deflections into run-out baskets.

Josh Howard led Dallas (27-13) with a game-high 32 on 11-of-16 shooting and Dirk Nowitzki had 21, but Washington did a great job of limiting the battle of the backcourts. DeShawn Stevenson and Antonio Daniels outscored Devin Harris and Eddie Jones 25-17. The Locksmith had another great day offensively with 18 points and nailing four-of-six from beyond the arc. Since November 17, when Washington's starting backcourt outscores its counterparts, the Wiz are 10-1.

The Wiz have now won five of their last six and with each game they look more and more like a well-balanced team. Much of the credit here goes to assistant coach Randy Ayers who has
instilled the values of locking it down on the defensive end to this group of players. His brand of gritty defense has meshed quite well with Washington's ability to get out in transition. When Daniels, Stevenson and Butler can create turnovers, they often lead directly to points at the other end. Butler is equally responsible from Washington's rise from the bottom of the league in defensive efficiency last season to 10th this season. He and Stevenson have led by example and the rest of the Wizards are responding. Brendan Haywood and Andray Blatche are battling with opposing big men in the paint, getting on the boards and contesting shots to compliment the perimeter defenders. Holding Dallas - the league's eight best offense at 101.48 points per game - to just 84 points is proof that Ayers' coaching and Butler's leadership have really turned things around for the Wizards.

The Numbers Game
- Washington's record since Nov. 17 when they win the battle of the backcourt.
- Tough Juice's steals per game over the last six games. The Wiz are 5-1 during that stretch.
207 - Consecutive games started by DeShawn Stevenson, good for third among all active players behind Tayshaun Prince and Bruce Bowen.
- Scoring differential for the Wiz: 99.26 v. 96.78 for their opponents. That's 11th best in the NBA.
- Washington's record without Agent Zero.


  • "We're being nastier and grittier defensively and our concentration level is up defensively. The theme tonight was, 'Each possession get better': The next possession on defense, get better. The next possession on defense, get tougher. The next possession, get into them tighter." -- Eddie Jordan on Monday's win.
  • Eddie Jordan has been picking his spots with Nick Young. The self-proclaimed Bean Burrito has played as many as 27 minutes this season and as few as zero. After a stretch earlier this season when he reached double-figure scoring in six of 11 contests, Young found himself riding the pine pony more than he would've liked in parts of December and earlier this month. Maybe it had something to do with the lack of focus that forced Jamison and Butler to rearrange the locker room, or maybe Jordan just felt more comfortable with his veterans on the floor in close games. Either way, Young appears to be reemerging as an offensive spark off the bench for the Wiz of late. After putting up 12 points in just under 19 minutes against the Knicks on Friday, the rookie had nine in just under 14 minutes against Dallas. Washington needs scoring off the bench and if Young can step up as a routine contributor, the Wizards will gladly tolerate his ridiculous nicknames.
  • Oleksiy Pecherov has Young to thank for his latest nickname. The rookie previously referred to as "Stewie," due to his striking resemblance of America's favorite animated baby bent on world domination, was most recently dubbed "the white hole" by the afore-mentioned Burrito. Seriously? Whatever his name happens to be at the moment, Pesh has been giving the Wiz quality minutes off the bench since returning from the right ankle injury that kept him out the first two and a half months of the season. He's averaging 4.2 points in five games and continues to look more comfortable playing against NBA forwards.
Next Up
The Wizards get another chance to show just how much they've improved defensively when they travel to the Q to take on King James and the Cavs. At 21-18 heading into tonight's game at Miami, Cleveland sits one game behind Washington at fifth place in the Eastern Conference. The Wiz trounced the Cavs in D.C. on December 5, 105-86. But that win came with LeBron (and Anderson Varejao and Donyell Marshall) in street clothes on the bench and if back-to-back playoff exits to Cleveland have proven anything, it's that James always gets up to play the Wiz. This has developed into quite a rivalry and with both teams rolling - the Cavs have won 8-of-10 - this one should be a dandy. Check back Wednesday for a full preview of the game and a prediction.

-- The Tar Heel

All photos AP/Getty

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