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Ponder's performance makes Vikings proud

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Ponder's performance makes Vikings proud

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. (AP) Signs of Christian Ponder's confidence made a welcomed return for the Minnesota Vikings, in the pocket during a win and at the podium for his postgame interview.

The keys to success for the second-year quarterback are minimizing sacks and turnovers and spreading around the ball to a variety of receivers. If Ponder is cracking self-deprecating jokes and firing off other one-liners -- like quick, sharp passes under pressure -- at his news conference afterward, that's usually further evidence that Ponder helped fuel a Vikings win.

``I want to thank my girlfriend, because she obviously has such a big impact on how I play,'' Ponder said after Minnesota beat Detroit 34-24 to move to 6-4 entering its bye week.

He's in a relationship with ESPN college sports reporter Samantha Steele, a romantic link revealed about a month ago. Since Ponder's performance crash over the previous three games started around the time his dating life was publicized, some frustrated fans blamed him for being distracted. The truth is their connection was struck before the season, though, and Ponder was overwhelmed by the Arizona, Tampa Bay and Seattle defenses.

So Ponder badly needed a win Sunday as much as anyone else on the Vikings. Several veterans praised his play unprompted, well aware of the mounting doubts about the 2011 first-round draft pick from Florida State's ability to be the long-term solution at the sport's most important position.

``Ponder had a good day,'' linebacker Chad Greenway said after redirecting a question about Adrian Peterson, whose 171 yards rushing helped take the load off his teammate. ``You really don't want to lose focus of that. He made some really nice conversions on third down and threw some tough balls, so I'm proud of the way he stepped up after some tough weeks.''

Tough weeks remain. The Vikings return Nov. 25 at NFC North-leading Chicago then go to Green Bay on Dec. 2. Both of those teams come to Minnesota in the last month, too, and they visit AFC-leading Houston on Dec. 23.

For now, the Vikings can enjoy the 20th start of Ponder's career a little longer. He completed 24 of 32 passes for 221 yards and two touchdowns, took one sack and didn't turn the ball over. He was 7 for 7 on third downs during scoring drives, too, including a 54-yard completion to Jarius Wright that set up a touchdown and a third-and-6 throw to tight end Kyle Rudolph that went for a score.

``That's the No. 7 that we knew we had in our locker room and we've seen since we started in April,'' Rudolph said, referring to Ponder's jersey number. ``Christian just came out and let his talent take over. He just came out and threw it.''

The absence of do-it-all wide receiver Percy Harvin due to a sprained left ankle removed Ponder's favorite target. So he looked for Rudolph often. He hit Devin Aromashodu for a 31-yard gain on a slant pattern to set up a third-quarter field goal. He delivered the ball to Wright in stride on third-and-10 during Minnesota's first drive, the kind of defense-stretching long pass there's been a dearth of by the Vikings this year.

``The way he practiced throughout the week, particularly on Friday, he was really on fire,'' coach Leslie Frazier said, acknowledging the importance of a deep completion for Ponder early in the game to settle in.

Peterson said he saw ``a blessing in disguise'' for Ponder from Harvin's injury.

``Christian kind of forced into giving it to him sometimes. So with him being out, other guys stepped up. He was able to get back there and just go through his reads and progressions and find the guys that were open,'' Peterson said.

Nine Vikings caught passes.

``Ten,'' Ponder said, making sure to include himself, for the 15-yard loss he took on the batted ball by Lions defensive end Cliff Avril that landed in his arms well behind the line of scrimmage.

The Vikings spent extra time last week refining their passing game, be it the protection schemes on the line, the routes run by their receivers or the plays called by offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave. The most important change, though, fell on Ponder, to survey the field for his second or third options in situations when the first guy is covered.

``No matter who writes what, it's not going to be as disappointing to read as what I say to myself,'' Ponder said. ``It doesn't bother me, because it comes with the territory. The criticism is justified with the play on the field. I know I can play better, and today was OK. There's still a ton of room to keep improving.''

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Wizards have to find a way to stop DeMar DeRozan to climb back in series

Wizards have to find a way to stop DeMar DeRozan to climb back in series

The Toronto Raptors' best player has become a serious problem for the Washington Wizards, as they now face a 3-2 series deficit in their 2018 NBA Playoffs first-round series and the bleak reality that one more loss means their season is over.

DeMar DeRozan, who began this first round series with a modest 17 points in Game 1, has since raised his game to a new level to beyond even what we have seen in the past. In Games 2-5, DeRozan has averaged 31.8 points, including his 32-game outburst in Game 5 that tilted the series in Toronto's favor.

DeRozan is averaging 28.8 points through five games against the Raptors. That's up considerably from his 22.5-point career playoff average.

DeRozan scored his 32 points in Game 5 with efficiency. He shot 12-for-24 from the field and even made three of his four shots from three.

He didn't even need the free throw line like he normally does. DeRozan shot six free throws, less than his regular season average.

The Wizards are having trouble with DeRozan particularly in the first half. DeRozan is averaging 14.8 first-half points during the playoffs, second only to LeBron James. 

DeRozan had 20 points by halftime in Game 5.

"DeMar was in his element tonight," forward Kelly Oubre, Jr. said. "He got it going early. It was kind of hard to shut him off."

The Wizards are paying for disrespecting DeRozan's three-point shot. He made just 31.2 percent from long range in the regular season, but is shooting threes at a 45.5 percent clip in the playoffs.

If DeRozan is knocking down shots from outside, his offensive game is as complete as just about anyone in the NBA. He has shown in this series an impressive ability to not only get to the rim, but finish through contact or draw fouls.

DeRozan does a good job of maintaining body and ball control going straight up against Wizards' big men and is often rewarded by the referees. He shot a playoff career-high 18 free throws in Game 4.

The Wizards are actually doing a decent job of taking away his midrange shots, which usually account for much of his points. Though DeRozan is hitting an impressive 66.7 percent from 5-to-9 feet, up from his season clip of 47.6, his numbers are down from further out.

DeRozan is shooting 40 percent from 10-to-14 feet out, down from 41.5 percent in the regular season, and just 28.6 percent from 15-to-19 feet, down from 43.7.

DeRozan is hurting the Wizards from long range and within nine feet of the rim. He is taking what the Wizards are giving him and Washington has to adjust.

"We’ve gotta pretty much get it out of [his] hands. Make sure we take care of everybody else," Oubre said.

The Wizards should look to how the defended him in Game 4 as a good example of how to limit his impact. DeRozan had 35 points, but required 29 shots from the field and 18 free throws to get there. 

Washington forced DeRozan into an inefficient night and forced others to try to beat them. The result was the Wizards' best defensive game overall, as the Raptors scored a series-low 98 points.

DeRozan isn't the only defensive concern for the Wizards as they look ahead to Game 6 on Friday. Backup point guard Delon Wright scored 18 points for the second time this series and Toronto hit 11 threes in the game.

The Wizards held the Raptors to just seven threes in Game 4 and it was no coincidence they won that game. They have to lock down the perimeter and, as this series has shown, that includes DeRozan even though he isn't known for making threes.

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Wizards go cold late to drop Game 5, as Raptors take 3-2 series lead

Wizards go cold late to drop Game 5, as Raptors take 3-2 series lead

The Washington Wizards lost to the Toronto Raptors 108-98 in Game 5 of their first round playoff series on Wednesday night. Here's analysis of what went down...

Ice cold: When the Wizards needed it most, their offense failed them. With John Wall running the show, they can traditionally score with the best of them. But from the 4:05 mark in the fourth quarter, they went scoreless for a stretch of three minutes and 49 seconds.

Meanwhile, the Raptors converted turnovers into points to close the game on a 14-5 run. The Wizards shot brick after brick from long range and missed 11 of their last 15 shots. It was a shocking collapse in a game that had been going well for the Wizards.

By beating the Wizards in Game 5, the Raptors took a 3-2 series lead which historically means they have nearly an 83 percent chance of winning the series. Those aren't good odds for the Wizards, who can look at one area of the court to blame.

The Wizards made only five threes on 26 attempts. The Raptors, conversely, went 11-for-25 (44%) from the perimeter. The Wizards' five threes were their fewest in a game since Jan. 12.

The Wizards have now lost seven straight posteason games on the road.

DeRozan was a killer: As has been the case this entire series, DeMar DeRozan led the charge for Toronto. The perennial All-Star came out on fire with 20 points in the first half alone.

This time, it wasn't just free throws. He was 4-for-4 at the half, but 7-for-13 from the field and 2-for-2 from three. Usually, threes aren't his game.

DeRozan kept it up in the second half to score 32 points on 12-of-24 from the field. That's a pretty efficient night.

Otto looked a bit hurt: Otto Porter, who was held to nine points and four rebounds, didn't appear to be moving very well. He was running around with a limp, which suggests his right lower leg strain is still bothering him.

Head coach Scott Brooks said last week that Porter is 100 percent, but that doesn't seem like the case. Perhaps there was some sort of setback in the time since. Porter, however, is such a smart player and such a good shooter that he can still make the most of his time on the court.

Solid start: The Wizards aren't used to playing well in the first quarter this series. They entered Game 5 with an average deficit of -7.2 points in the first quarter. In this game, however, they led by one point after one.

That was thanks to a buzzer-beater by John Wall (26 points, nine assists, nine rebounds). Ian Mahinmi got the offensive rebound and it set up Wall for a last-second shot. He got to one of his spots and sent it in:

It was just the second time in five games this series that the Wizards have been leading after one. The other time was Game 3, when the Wizards beat the Raptors handily to earn their first win.

The Wizards, though, couldn't finish. They also couldn't protect the ball. At least Wall couldn't, as he committed seven turnovers, one short of his playoff career-high.

Backup PGs: The Raptors again played without point guard Fred VanVleet, their best bench player and a guy who is arguably one of the best backup point guards in basketball. The loss has been evident for the most part, despite his replacement Delon Wright doing a solid job, including with 18 points in Game 5.

On Wednesday, Washington's backup point guard also shined. Despite not playing a single game during the regular season, Ty Lawson continues to make smart plays and create scoring opportunities for others.

He had four assists in this game and made one of the best plays of the night. Check out this move he put on to set up Ian Mahinmi:

And this dude was playing in China like two weeks ago? If he keeps this up, there will be an easy case to make that the Wizards should re-sign him for next season.

Clearly, they want Tomas Satoransky to play more off the ball and the coaching staff hasn't gained full trust in him. Lawson and Satoransky could make a solid reserve backcourt if they have some time to develop some chemistry.

Up next: The Wizards and Raptors are back at it on Friday night in Washington for Game 6. Tipoff is at 7 p.m. on NBC Sports Washington.

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