It’s a second-hand story, but the point is valid.
According to lore, shot-slinging and epically named World B. Free was tasked with guarding another team’s prime scorer. His coach went over the details pregame, then turned to Free and asked how he planned to stop the opposing player.
“Give me the ball, and I’ll foul him out,” Free purportedly responded.
That kind of get-back response from Free was predictable. From the late 1970s into the mid-1980s, Free was a rollicking scorer. He was unconcerned by the concept of defense, whether it was trying to stop him or part of his job.
Blips of Free’s mentality have shown in the Washington Wizards’ first three games of the season. After winning an opener in grinding fashion, 88-87, against the Orlando Magic, the Wizards’ accelerated offense has spun them into triple-digit waffling. The last two games, Washington is averaging 114 points. Their opponents are averaging 115.
“Sometimes, when you play the way we play, you can get lackadaisical on defense because you’re going at such a high pace,” Jared Dudley said.
An uptick in opponent scoring was expected. The new offense means more possessions, which naturally lead to more total points. What rankles Wizards coach Randy Wittman are the defensive efficiency metrics, even in this limited sample of three games.
The Wizards were 16th in defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) after Saturday’s 117-110 loss to the New York Knicks. They expect to be at least a top-10 team in that category, if not top five. Last season, when they played at a much slower offensive pace, they were fifth.
“I’m not worried. We’re going to get the mindset changed,” Wittman said.
On Saturday, the Wizards ran into a long-standing NBA tradition: the volume scorer. Carmelo Anthony began to roll early in the game against confused Washington coverage. The Wizards didn’t double-team hard at times when they were supposed to. They also didn’t align themselves properly at others, fighting Anthony with a high-side front part-time instead of full-time. This allowed Anthony to find a rhythmic life, propelling him into an irrefutable offensive mode. He scored 37 points on 18 shots.
“Melo was too comfortable early on,” Dudley said. “Once he gets it going, it’s hard to turn him off.”
Wittman understands this can happen with scorers of Anthony’s ilk. He dismissed Anthony’s scoring as part of life in the NBA, though, of course, he would hope for a reduction from 37 points.
The quibble is with the Knicks’ supporting cast. Kyle O’Quinn used a pump fake on Marcin Gortat that led to a driving dunk. Assistant coach Don Newman threw his hands in the air, then slapped the empty seat next to him as O’Quinn drove. Forward Lance Thomas was 6-for-8 from the field. He shot 35.7 percent last season and 43.4 the season before that, the only two times he averaged more than five shots per game in a four-year career.
“We just didn’t guard anybody,” Bradley Beal said. “We were letting guys catch the ball too easily. We were just letting them do whatever they wanted offensively; 117 is way too many points.”
The coming week-plus brings more potent offensive challenges. Washington hosts the offensively proficient San Antonio Spurs on Wednesday. They will the young Boston Celtics, who also work at a high pace, on the road on Friday. The week closes Saturday at the Atlanta Hawks, who took all of their offensive cues from San Antonio’s system. Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder come to town on Nov. 10.
“We have a very tough schedule coming up,” Beal said. “Unless we want to get beat by 20, we have to take care of the ball and play defense. We’ve got San Antonio, OKC, Atlanta. We have top-tier teams. We have to be ready to go, and if we’re not, we’re going to get blasted.”
The loss Saturday night was the close to a straining day for Wittman. The team returned to Washington from Milwaukee on Friday night. Wittman went to Minnesota to attend the funeral of longtime friend and former Wizards coach Flip Saunders. He scrambled back Saturday evening and walked to the Wizards’ bench in the second quarter, concluding what he termed a “tough day.”
“With that aside, we just need to get back,” Wittman said. “The commitment to defend is just not there. We can talk about a lot of other things and make excuses, but to score 110 points at home and lose by seven, that’s what it boils down to: We’re not committed right now, and we’ve got to change that.”