- The Washington Times - Monday, November 2, 2009

When Flip Saunders took over as coach of the Washington Wizards last spring, his future and past players, league officials and analysts praised him for his impressive career winning percentage and offensive genius.

But in talking about expectations for his new team, Saunders discussed leading a Washington squad that would rank among the league leaders on defense.

Saunders said he wanted Washington to limit opponents to 44 percent shooting this season. It seemed like a lofty aspiration given that even during their run of four straight playoff appearances, the Wizards never had a reputation of playing defense. But three games into the season, the Wizards already are providing indications Saunders’ goal might be attainable after all.

The Wizards have limited opponents to 42.3 percent shooting from the floor, good enough for eighth in the league, including 30 percent from 3-point range. Even in Friday’s loss to Atlanta, the Wizards held the Hawks to 41 percent shooting.

“The biggest thing is we try to limit teams’ uncontested shots,” center Brendan Haywood said. “Even if someone gets a shot, you want to have someone running at them, having a hand up. Because teams normally shoot a worse percentage when you do that.”

The Wizards have ranked 25th in the league in opponents’ field goal percentage over the past four seasons at .471.

Last season, when the Wizards equaled the franchise’s worst season, they were 29th in the league after allowing opponents to make 48.2 percent. A lot of the blame for last year’s drop-off can be blamed on the absence of Washington’s best post defender - Haywood - and its best perimeter defender, guard DeShawn Stevenson, who missed 50 games after back surgery.

The return of Haywood and Stevenson certainly meant some improvement, but to transform into a solid defensive squad, Washington would need commitment from its other players as well. And the Wizards have been willing learners.

“Flip has stressed playing defense the right way, getting to your spots, certain areas,” Haywood said. “We have very good defensive principles now, and we try to stick to them. … And we also have different things as far as schemes and concepts on where guys are supposed to be for help. When you’re in the right spot, it helps everybody out because I know where I’m supposed to go and other guys know where they’re supposed to go.”

Sticking to defensive principles is a big difference from the Wizards of the past. Haywood and his teammates said one of their problems under Eddie Jordan was inconsistent strategy.

Jordan had his defense but brought in assistant Randy Ayers to teach a new scheme, only to switch back when the team was struggling. Later, the players recalled, they returned to Ayers’ system.

Saunders also has preached accountability and declared to his players that if they cannot defend, they won’t see much playing time. Nick Young, who has strong offensive potential, has seen limited playing time because of a slowly developing grasp on the defensive end.

Haywood and Stevenson again are setting the pace for the Wizards, but rather than relying on the duo to handle the dirty work, other players are chipping in as well.

“We’re like more of a family [defensively],” backup forward/center Andray Blatche said. “I don’t want to let somebody down or have my family upset. Our main goal is to get better on defense. That’s what we’re doing. We’re playing great defense.”

The Wizards still have room for improvement and have plenty of stiff tests awaiting them. But the early showings have encouraged Saunders and indicated his message is getting through.

“Guys understand that if you don’t play hard, you don’t play defense, you’re not going to play,” Saunders said. “And when guys see a guy like DeShawn come in and he gives the effort he gave as far as pressuring the ball, that becomes contagious. And if you’re not defending, not pressuring the ball, you kind of stick out like sore thumb.”

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