“We’re holding him to that standard,” Beal said on a videoconference Saturday, “and he’s holding himself to that, and he’s doing it.”
Hachimura received a healthy amount of praise from Beal and Washington Coach Scott Brooks alike for his defensive performance in the Wizards’ 118-111 win over the Portland Trail Blazers on Saturday. But he wasn’t the only one.
With the win over the Blazers, Washington (10-17) earned its first four-game winning streak since 2018, and the reason is obvious: The Wizards are flying because their defense, long the Achilles’ heel of the franchise, has been improving.
“We’re being better at [defense],” Beal said, “because everybody’s accepting the individual challenge, we’re helping each other, and it’s all starting to click. We’re not getting tired of doing the right things on the floor. I think that’s just been a testament to our maturity in our last few games.”
On Saturday night, the Wizards held Portland to 35.9 percent shooting overall including 34.5 percent shooting from three and displayed some of their longest stretches of solid defense all season. After catching Washington flat-footed and opening the game with a 43-point first quarter, the Blazers didn’t have a single field goal in the final five minutes before halftime.
Just like in their win against Denver on Wednesday, the game hinged on Washington making a defensive stand in the second quarter. The Wizards allowed Portland just 12 points in the period, the fewest they’ve allowed in a single quarter since March 2019, according to the team.
For the second game in a row, Brooks had deployed all three of his centers in the first 12 minutes. And for the second game in a row, it was Robin Lopez who had the most impact at the rim, with Hachimura in a supporting role.
“I thought Rui and RoLo changed the game,” Brooks said.
The result was the fourth straight game in which the Wizards dropped low into their defensive stances and made life difficult for their opponent — including at the three-point line, where the Wizards have reversed their previously horrendous long-range defense. In the past four games, the team allowed opponents to hit three’s with just 32.1 percent accuracy, compared to 41 percent in the first seven games of February.
To be sure, Washington started the month in a place where improvement was — nearly — the only option, with the second-to-worst defensive rating in the league.
But their progress shouldn’t be discounted, especially against teams with offensive might like Denver’s and Portland’s. The Wizards now sit 25th in defensive rating. In February games alone, they are 12th in the league.
“It’s letting the other team know that we’re here, that we’re going to be physical, we’re going to stand our ground and make it tough for them,” Russell Westbrook said Saturday, on the differences between now and earlier in the season. “I know we did a hell of a job of that tonight, I mean, they ended up shooting 35 percent from the field, we can’t ask for better defense than that. I thought we did a hell of a job.”
Defense also generated strong offense in the first bout of a four-game road trip on the West Coast. Beal led all scorers with 37 points and added seven rebounds and three assists.
Westbrook had one of his most efficient performances of the season with 27 points on 11-of-17 shooting and had 11 rebounds and 13 assists for his eighth triple-double of the year. The point guard is now in sole possession of second place on the Wizards’ all-time triple-double list, surpassing John Wall and Wes Unseld who each had seven. Darrell Walker, who played in Washington from 1987-1991, had 15.
Hachimura added 17 points and seven rebounds and the Wizards shot 50.6 percent from the field.
For Portland, Damian Lillard led five scorers in double figures with 35 points and still couldn’t best these more locked-in Wizards, who shrouded him every time he saw the ball.
Next up, Washington takes its on-the-mend defense to run a gauntlet through Los Angeles, facing the 2020 NBA champion Lakers on Monday before playing the Clippers on Tuesday.
Lopez is hopeful the team will carry the same defensive principals down the coast now that they’ve extended the winning streak. Brooks said the Wizards have made strategic tweaks recently, but players also credit the recent defensive uptick to a positive feedback loop.
When asked about Hachimura — who indeed was tasked with guarding all five spots on the floor Saturday — Lopez called the young forward’s defense “magnificent.”
“He’s really locked in, he’s helping everybody and like you said, he’s been incredibly versatile,” Lopez said. “I think it’s kind of a trickle-down effect, we get [Moritz Wagner] in the starting lineup, he has a lot of energy, Russ has a lot of energy, and I think people start feeling that. It’s been contagious. It’s been a lot of fun.”