SAN ANTONIO — Three games into his tenure, the Washington Wizards’ locker room is learning that interim coach Brian Keefe has a way of making the last dregs of January feel like October’s first blush. Practices these days feel a little bit like training camp.
That’s the way Keefe, who was named the Wizards’ interim coach Thursday when Washington’s new front office moved former coach Wes Unseld Jr. to a front office advisory role, is approaching the unusual task of taking over a team 46 games into a season.
So far, so good. The Wizards beat the San Antonio Spurs, 118-113, on Monday night thanks to a 20-6 fourth-quarter run for Keefe’s second win since he took over. The victory followed Saturday’s win in Detroit — two NBA bottom-dwellers, before anyone busts out the confetti cannons, but the Wizards did lose to both teams earlier this month. Keefe is 2-1, and the Wizards have their first two-game winning streak of the season.
“We trusted the pass,” Keefe said of his team’s comeback run. “Tyus [Jones] and Kyle [Kuzma] were playing a little two-man game. We found Bilal [Coulibaly] for one three. We found Jordan [Poole] for one three. So we just hit the open man, and we made the simple play, and the trust factor was great.”
The Wizards (9-37) had six scorers in double figures, led by Kuzma with 18 points, 11 rebounds and five assists. Washington leaned on its defensive activity — and a few clutch three-pointers in the fourth quarter. Daniel Gafford had 16 points and 13 rebounds, including a career-high eight offensive rebounds. His two in the fourth quarter gave the Wizards the control they needed to close out the game.
Washington, which trailed by 14 in the first half, outrebounded the Spurs (10-37) 45-36.
Before their comeback, the Wizards had the luxury of an actual practice in San Antonio on Sunday — a rarity at this point in the season. It was their first full practice under Keefe.
“Lot of teaching,” guard Landry Shamet said Monday before the game. “Lot, lot of teaching.”
Keefe’s first order of business was to change a significant amount of what the Wizards do on defense. Washington has the 29th-rated defense in the league, better only than the Charlotte Hornets, and is the worst rebounding team. Keefe is slowly installing schematic changes and introducing different terminology.
To the new coach, it’s not a problem that Washington’s roster probably will change soon with the trade deadline Feb. 9. Nor does it feel like a hurdle that the Wizards don’t have many defensive-minded players on their roster.
“It’s a simple one. We’re going to be built on defense. This organization’s going to be of a defensive culture. Defense is what wins,” Keefe said in an interview Sunday. “. . . For us, we don’t use excuses for any of the guys that we have. We expect them to do the things we ask them to do. They want to be coached like that, and we’re going to have to do it as a group.”
That bluntness is Keefe to a T, according to his players, who describe the Massachusetts native as a clear communicator. Players respect his directness, especially when he lays out expectations, and laud the credibility he has earned by experience. Keefe’s NBA career began with a stint as a video coordinator under Gregg Popovich in San Antonio before he became a coach in Oklahoma City under Sam Presti, then wound through gigs with the New York Knicks, Los Angeles Lakers and Brooklyn Nets before he landed in Washington this past summer.
“In film, if you’re wrong, you’re wrong. There’s no conversation about it,” Shamet said. “[Keefe’s] a black-and-white guy: ‘This is what we should have been doing, and this is what we did. Here’s the divide.’ And that’s incredibly important as a coach and a leader. It’s been great.”
“He’s a worker,” point guard Tyus Jones said, “knows what he’s talking about. The first meeting was good. He’s just a straight shooter, no nonsense, very blunt, and that’s part of the reason everyone respects him.”
His players couldn’t say whether Keefe was attracted to being a video coordinator roughly two decades ago because he’s naturally detail oriented or whether the job made him that way. One reason Keefe-led practices have the regimented feel of training camp to Shamet is because if any player makes even the tiniest mistake during a walk-through, everyone starts again, from the top.
Keefe is accustomed to that kind of repetition and minutiae, two things he experienced a lot in the Spurs’ video room all those years ago.
Asked after Monday’s win whether the effects of the coaching change could be felt after three games, Poole nodded. “Heavily,” the fifth-year guard said.
In his pregame news conference Monday, Popovich said that from early on, it was easy to see Keefe would become an assistant coach.
“You’ll find that in a lot of organizations, guys started out in the film room,” Popovich said. “Players come in, and they’ll say, ‘Give me all my pick and rolls,’ or, ‘I want to see all my catches tonight.’ Coaches will come in and say, ‘We need this,’ or ‘We need that,’ and they’re pouring through all that tape trying to put those things together, and pretty quickly they understand what we’re all looking for, what’s appropriate, what’s not appropriate, all the little nuances to what happens in the game at both ends of the court. They get a great education in that film room.”
That education — and attention to detail — is now getting trained on the Wizards, ingraining new habits in players even if it means starting them halfway through the season.
“A lot of times, when you [didn’t] play in the NBA, you’re attention to detail has to be insane. That’s [Keefe]. He’s insane,” Kuzma said after Monday’s win. “All the little things matter, and it’s rubbing off. I think you see, the loose balls we got [tonight], the rebounding, the spacing, the execution of what we’re trying to do, that’s attention to detail.”