- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 21, 2021

After the Wizards’ 118-111 win over the Portland Trail Blazers on Saturday, coach Scott Brooks pointed to forward Rui Hachimura in the locker room during a team meeting. Brooks singled out Hachimura’s defense, telling him he was capable of guarding every position on the floor. 

“You’ve been the difference-maker the last two weeks,” Brooks said to Hachimura.

The Wizards have won four straight  — the team’s longest streak since winning five in a row in January 2018, the year Washington last made the postseason. And they’re doing so with an unexpected strength: Defense.

On Saturday, the Wizards held Portland to just 35.9% shooting to snap the Trail Blazers’ six-game winning streak. That was the second-best mark of Washington’s season, behind holding the Celtics to only 35.6% shooting last week. 

On paper, the Wizards’ roster appeared to be one of the league’s worst defensive teams. And for the first two months of the season, that proved to be true. But the Wizards’ coaches, executives and players insisted they were capable of playing better.

This latest run is backing that up.

Over every team’s last four games, the Wizards hold the league’s fourth-best defensive rating, giving up just 105.2 points per 100 possessions. They’re averaging 9.5 steals per game (third) and scoring 21 points per game off turnovers (fourth). And in terms of the good old-fashion eye-test, Washington now closes out on jump shots and scrambles to make plays more consistently. 

The four-game stretch may be a small sample size, but the Wizards’ defense has been steadily improving during February.  During this month, the Wizards have a 111.5 defensive rating — 12th in the league. That’s above average and Washington is 6-5 as a result. 

Brooks said he sees Washington finally rounding into form after a rough start to the year that included a three-week pause due to COVID-19.

“We kept saying, ‘We need games, We need games.’ Well, February has given us games,” Brooks said. “That’s what we need. The last couple of games, I felt like our legs were ready to play some consistent basketball on the defensive end. It’s hard to be a good defensive team when you’re not in great shape.  And the reason we weren’t in great shape is because we missed three weeks in the middle of the season.

“It wasn’t because guys were lazy and eating In-N-Out burgers. We had guys who missed a bunch of games and didn’t practice.” 

Hachimura is a prime example of benefitting from rounding into shape. The 23-year-old missed time because of the virus and when he returned, the Japanese native looked rusty. His shot was off during his first few games and he didn’t look as athletic as usual. 

But now, Hachimura is rounding into form — and even showing new depths to his game. The 6-foot-8 forward is displaying a defensive versatility that wasn’t there as a rookie. According to the NBA’s tracking data, Hachimura is holding opponents to 46.9% over the last four games and 48.1% on the season. Last year, that percentage was 52.1. 

Hachimura is mostly known for his scoring ability, but the team had hoped he would develop into a defender. When Hachimura was drafted, general manager Tommy Sheppard said he saw Hachimura as a “late bloomer,” comparing him to Toronto’s Pascal Siakiam — a versatile forward who can score and defend. 

Hachimura also has embraced defending. Guard Bradley Beal said at a recent practice, Hachimura told the group that he could guard “one through five,” i.e. every position on the floor.

“We’re holding him to that standard,” Beal said. “It’s no surprise to us honestly.”

Hachimura isn’t the only reason for Washington’s defensive turnaround.  Brooks said the Wizards altered their defensive schemes, declining to name specifics. Center Robin Lopez has also been a key emergence, helping swing the last two games in the second quarter. During last week’s win against the Denver Nuggets, Lopez contained big man Nikola Jokic as Washington clawed back from a 20-point deficit. 

On Saturday, the Wizards erased a 14-point deficit and in the second quarter, Portland scored just 12 points — Washington’s best defensive quarter since March 31, 2019. 

Washington, of course, will have to show it can sustain its new-found defensive prowess. Before the four-game winning streak, the Wizards were giving up 115.5 points per 100 possessions and 120.1 points per game. The Wizards ranked second-to-last and last in those categories.

But now, after clamping down, the Wizards have climbed up … all the way to 25th in defensive rating and 29th in points allowed per game. 

Hey, it’s a start.

“We’re doing a good job of letting the other team know that we’re here,” guard Russell Westbrook said, “and we’re going to be physical, stand our ground and make it tough for them.”

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