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Justin Smith's likely return big factor for 49ers

Justin Smith's likely return big factor for 49ers

SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) Even at less than full strength, Justin Smith's presence on the San Francisco defensive line is enough to instill plenty of fear in opposing offenses.

Or even his own teammates, for that matter. Running back Frank Gore endured his toughest training camp yet last summer while facing his defensive teammates each day - Smith, in particular.

``I'd take a 75 percent Justin ahead of anybody,'' Gore said Wednesday. ``At 75-80 percent, he's better than anybody at his position. ... I'm not scared, haaa! But he's a beast, man.''

Smith is expected to return to the field for Saturday night's NFC divisional playoff game against Green Bay (12-5) at Candlestick Park, and, oh, how his teammates will welcome back ``The Cowboy'' as they try to chase down Aaron Rodgers and Co.

Smith, the soft-spoken emotional leader of defensive coordinator Vic Fangio's unit, missed the final two regular-season games with a partially torn left triceps muscle. His arm is now covered in a protective brace for practice, and everybody involved expects him to be ready to play for the NFC West champions (11-4-1).

Coach Jim Harbaugh put it this way Wednesday: ``God willing and the creek don't rise, he will play.''

Having the extra week of rest was a huge help for Smith's health. San Francisco secured the NFC's No. 2 seed with a win against Arizona and when Minnesota beat Green Bay in Week 17.

It is the versatile Smith who makes this defense go - with his stingy pass-rushing and run-stopping. Sure, there's Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman, Aldon Smith. And a talented, playmaking secondary.

Smith is a smash-mouth footballer to the core. The definition of the blue-collar player Harbaugh so loves. Smith chips his teeth about once a season thanks to a refusal to wear a mouth guard because it restricts his breathing.

``Justin, his presence just back on the practice field, I can tell you this, that there's a character of our team that's enhanced, is driven by Justin,'' Harbaugh said earlier in the week. ``And that's the way I think of it. That's what I sense and feel when we're out there on the practice field. And we look very much forward to having him back in the lineup.''

Until last month, Smith had started 185 consecutive games dating to his rookie season of 2001.

While the 49ers have praised Ricky Jean Francois for his fine play filling in for Smith, No. 94 is needed on the field now as San Francisco looks to get past last season's disappointing finish and finally return to the Super Bowl. This team lost in overtime of the NFC title game to the eventual champion Giants, failing in its bid to reach the Super Bowl for the first time since the 1994 season.

``It's a big lift, for the simple fact Justin's a Pro Bowler and to try to fill his shoes, they're big shoes to fill,'' linebacker Ahmad Brooks said. ``He creates a lot of havoc for the backfield and draws a lot of double-teams.''

Smith dominates the right side of the line with his sheer physical strength and spot-on instincts. He is probably the biggest reason linebacker Aldon Smith finished with a franchise-record 19 1/2 sacks this season - falling three shy of Michael Strahan's single-season mark set in 2001 for the Giants. Yet Aldon Smith didn't have a single one over the final three games, most of that stretch with Smith sidelined.

While the team doctors will have the final say, Smith will offer his input regarding his health - ``the player knows his body best,'' Harbaugh said. And Smith has already said he will be on the field to face the Packers.

``Well, he's told me he's ready, and he's ready to go, and that's enough for me,'' Fangio said. ``He's a leader both by example and verbally, and more so by example. He plays with a tenacity and an effort level that's second to none. And it's just contagious to everybody.''

Not that opposing coaches need to be told what they have in store seeing Smith. And certainly not Packers coach Mike McCarthy, whose Packers lost 30-22 in the season opener against San Francisco in September at Lambeau Field.

``Justin Smith's a very good football player,'' McCarthy said. ``And we're preparing for him to play. We've gone back far enough, they've got plenty of film on him, and make sure we're ready.''

The Cardinals regularly pounded the ball toward Smith's spot when he was out for the regular-season finale Dec. 30.

``He's a great leader not only for our defense but for our whole team,'' left tackle Joe Staley said. ``It's going to be big having him back out there.''

No matter that Smith doesn't own the flashy numbers or statistics of the NFL's more well-known defensive stars, some on his team. Smith, who spent his first seven NFL seasons with Cincinnati before joining the 49ers as a free agent in 2008, was picked as a starter for this year's Pro Bowl.

And he is the league's top tackler among defensive linemen since 2001 with 792.

``We need Justin,'' Brooks said. ``It changes the whole attitude of the defense.''

Notes: Harbaugh has yet to announce his starting kicker - newly signed Billy Cundiff or struggling veteran David Akers. ``No, not one that we're ready to announce yet,'' Harbaugh said. When asked if it might come down to 90 minutes before kickoff when inactives are named, the coach said, ``that's possible.''... Harbaugh said Candlestick Park received new turf several weeks ago. ``I thought it was OK,'' he said. ``It's not like it is in September. Most grass fields tend not to be as lush in the winter months.''

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Wizards suffer lopsided loss against Hornets, who have had their number this season

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Wizards suffer lopsided loss against Hornets, who have had their number this season

The Washington Wizards lost to the Charlotte Hornets 122-105 on Friday night. Here's analysis of what went down...

Bad matchup: Despite their poor record, there is something about this Charlotte Hornets team that gives the Wizards trouble. The Wizards lost to the Hornets for the third time in three tries this season on Friday night and, aside from a push in the third quarter, were never really in it.

All in all, it was a dud of a game for the Wizards who were probably due for one. They had won three straight games and eight of 10 since John Wall got injured. They were also coming off a huge road win the night before in Cleveland, a game that started an hour later than usual.

It was a tough turnaround and the Wizards sure looked like it. It was evident in their defense and unforced errors. They did, however, have a decent shooting night. They shot 49.4 percent from the field 16-for-17 from the free throw line.

The Wizards' second unit didn't provide a lift outside of Kelly Oubre, Jr. (11 points). Mike Scott, one of their best bench options, was held scoreless.

PODCAST: WHAT THE SESSIONS SIGNING MEANS FOR SATORANSKY

Ugly first half: The Wizards only trailed by 12 points at halftime, but that score was skewed by a five-point push in the final seconds. The Hornets dominated for much of the first two quarters and did so by hitting threes and forcing turnovers. Those mistakes dug the Wizards a hole they never recovered from.

The Wizards had 10 turnovers in the first half, the same amount they had in their entire game the night before. Limiting mistakes was a big reason they beat the Cavaliers, yet the script was flipped by Charlotte.

The Hornets capitalized with 23 points off those 10 first-half turnovers. The Wizards had 14 giveaways for the games that led to 28 total points. 

Charlotte was 7-for-11 from three at one point in the first half and finished 17-for-39 (43.6%) for the game. That is very uncharacteristic for the Wizards, who entered the night second in the NBA in opponents three-point percentage.

Again, though, the first half ended well as Oubre and Bradley Beal gave the Wizards a jolt in the final seconds:

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Bad defense: The Wizards have played some great defense in recent weeks, but they just didn't have it on Friday night. Most surprising were the guys that hurt them most.

Dwight Howard was limited to 11 points and six rebounds and Kemba Walker didn't score his first points until the final minute of the first half. But others like Frank Kaminsky (23 points), Marvin Williams (15 points) and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (14 points) got pretty much anything they wanted.

For Walker, it was a tale of two halves. He was held in check by Tomas Satoransky in the first half, but broke out in the third quarter and finished with 24 points and seven rebounds. Maybe it was tired legs on the Wizards' part, but Walker just kept dribbling until he got space and once he did, he knocked down shots.

Much like Kyle Lowry did a few weeks ago, Walker made adjustments to find success against Satoransky. We haven't seen that happen much since Wall went out, but those two guys have given him some trouble. Both guys are considerably smaller than Satoransky and very quick. Maybe there's something to that.

Add it all up and this was one of the worst defensive games of the season for the Wizards. They allowed their most points in a game since Jan. 17 against, you guessed it, the Hornets. Only three times this year have they given up more than what they allowed on Friday.

No Sessions: The Wizards did not debut their newest player on Friday night, which was probably to be expected given Ramon Sessions has not had any practice time yet. That is part of why he didn't play, but it's also another indication that he is unlikely to play much with the Wizards. Sessions is on a 10-day contract and is not expected to supplant either Satoransky or Tim Frazier at point guard. Frazier would seem to be the guy in danger of losing minutes, but it was business as usual for him against the Hornets.

Up next: The Wizards are off Saturday before returning to action at home against the Philadelphia 76ers on Sunday night. Tipoff is at 8 p.m. on NBC Sports Washington.

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Don't expect a big role for Ramon Sessions with Wizards after signing as free agent

Don't expect a big role for Ramon Sessions with Wizards after signing as free agent

When Ramon Sessions was last with the Wizards, he was the primary backup point guard behind starter John Wall. Now back with the team on a 10-day contract, he is expected to play a much more muted role.

Wizards head coach Scott Brooks spoke of Sessions as the fourth-string point guard, not only behind Wall who remains out to recover from left knee surgery, but also behind Tomas Satoransky and Tim Frazier. The presence of Sessions should not affect Satoransky's minutes as the replacement starter and it doesn't sound like Frazier is in jeopardy of moving down the depth chart, either.

"I don't know how many minutes or opportunities he will get, but with the way he holds himself I feel comfortable if we need him in a pinch," Brooks said. "We have some coverage now if one of our guards goes down or gets in foul trouble."

PODCAST: WHAT THE SESSIONS SIGNING MEANS FOR SATORANSKY

Brooks mentioned Sessions' ability to play some at shooting guard if needed. He also praised Sessions' penchant for getting to the free throw line. Sessions has averaged 3.9 free throw attempts in just 23.5 minutes per game. That's highest among active players who have averaged 24 minutes or less in their career.

Sessions played well for the Wizards down the stretch of the 2014-15 season and in the 2015-16 campaign. As a member of the Wizards, he averaged 9.2 points and 3.0 assists per game.

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He has played for eight different teams, but has always felt a connection to Washington.

"It just always felt like a place I could end up back one day," he said. "People always ask me, being on so many teams, 'what's the home team to you?' I always come back to the Wizards. It was a place I was only here a year-and-a-half, but it feels like much longer than that with the run we had and the fans and the support I get when I come here."

Exactly how long Sessions will be here is unclear. He couldn't crack the Knicks' rotation earlier this season and has a lot to prove. Still, he's excited for the opportunity.

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