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Vitt praises Saints' resolve, aims for .500 finish

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Vitt praises Saints' resolve, aims for .500 finish

METAIRIE, La. (AP) Saints assistant head coach Joe Vitt is urging his players to keep thinking about the Lombardi Trophy as they prepare for what otherwise is an anticlimactic season finale between two non-playoff teams.

``There's two types of Super Bowl winners: Those that win and those that win one. And our goal is to win two and we're working toward that goal right now,'' Vitt said Monday as he recalled a recent pep talk to the team.

``Now we can't play for it this year, but that doesn't mean you can't come to practice every day and you can't get better,'' Vitt added. ``Our players have really taken it to heart and it's been fun to be around.''

After New Orleans (7-8) hosts Carolina (6-9) on Sunday, it will close the book on what Vitt said will go down as one of his favorite teams in more than three decades of coaching.

Although the Saints have followed up the offseason bounty scandal by missing the playoffs for the first time in four years, Vitt said he will remember how the team refused to quit.

After starting 0-4, the Saints rallied to even their record at 5-5. When a three-game skid from late November to early December erased any realistic postseason hopes, the Saints responded with a 41-0 rout of Tampa Bay on Dec. 16, followed by a 34-31 overtime triumph at Dallas on Sunday, when New Orleans also was officially eliminated from playoff contention because of other results.

New Orleans now has a chance to close the season on a three-game winning streak and even its record at 8-8. And Vitt, who has been filling in for suspended head coach Sean Payton since serving a six-game bounty suspension of his own, bristles at the notion that he would tinker with substitution patterns to shield veteran stars from potential injury or give younger players more experience.

``The best players are going to play and we're going to play the game to win,'' Vitt said. ``We're not a farm team.''

As far as Vitt was concerned, not even Christmas was going to distract him from trying to close the season with a victory that could make the Saints 8-4 over their final 12 games.

``I'm not waiting for anyone with a white beard to come down the chimney and hand us the divisional championship,'' Vitt said. ``We'll try to get our coaches out of here tonight a bit early to have some dinner with their family and then spend tomorrow morning (off). But listen, we're getting ready for a game.

``When you get into this business, you say to yourself, `You're not going to enjoy Thanksgiving. You're not going to enjoy Christmas. You're working through those things.' So I'll look forward to Easter in the springtime and, I guess, Arbor Day. That's the nature of our business,'' Vitt added. ``We certainly don't want to let our fans down and we want to play very, very well this week.''

If the Saints don't play exceedingly well on defense, they could set an unflattering record for the most yards allowed in a single season. New Orleans heads into the game having given up 6,512 yards, 281 yards short of the record 6,793 allowed by the 1981 Baltimore Colts, a team for which Vitt served as a third-year assistant.

Saints linebacker Curtis Lofton said he can't worry about avoiding that record now.

``I don't really care. The main thing for me is we want to get a win. So if we give up however many yards and we get a win, I'll take the W any day,'' Lofton said. ``This year has been very different for me and a lot of the guys, you know, giving up all the yards and all that stuff. The first four games was tough, but when you look at us the last seven games, we played great defense.''

The Saints even held Dallas and quarterback Tony Romo largely in check until giving up a pair of touchdowns when the Cowboys went to a no-huddle offense in the closing minutes. Those scores allowed Dallas to force overtime, but when the Cowboys won the coin toss and took the ball first, the Saints' gave up only one first down before forcing a punt and setting the stage for Drew Brees to drive into winning field-goal range for kicker Garrett Hartley.

Saints first-year defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo said it pains him and his players to have yielded such enormous yardage totals this season and wishes he had an explanation.

Spagnuolo added, however, that he can only be proud of how well his unit improved during the second half of the season, which included the first shutout by a Saints defense in 17 years.

In some ways, he said, the defense's performance from late in regulation at Dallas through its successful overtime stand was symbolic of the season.

``It's not that easy to be the team that just got tied to go into overtime to then have them win the coin toss and have to go right back out there and play,'' Spagnuolo said. ``It's a reflection of the character and resolve of those guys.''

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Bradley Beal's phantom foul and the Wizards' most important rally of the season

Bradley Beal's phantom foul and the Wizards' most important rally of the season

After calling an inconsistent game throughout the night, the referees made a decision with five minutes to go in Game 4 that nearly altered the entire series between the Wizards and Raptors.

DeMar DeRozan was chasing a rebound on the baseline and ran into Bradley Beal. Beal, who had a team-high 31 points, was levied a sixth and final foul with the score tied. 

Beal had unloaded for 20 points in 12 minutes in the second half, but now the Wizards would have to close it out without their All-Star shooting guard. Somehow, they were able to seal the win and tie the series.

Beal heard the whistle as he laid on the ground. He immediately hopped up and unleashed a tantrum that nobody could blame him for.

He jumped up and down, screaming at the referees, who had just called by all accounts a questionable foul and in a key moment of a playoff game.

Both Beal and head coach Scott Brooks were incensed and with good reason.

“I was beyond emotional, beyond mad, frustrated," Beal said. "I honestly thought they were going to kick me out of the game I was so mad, but I was happy they didn’t do that."

Beal is probably lucky the referees didn't take offense to his reaction because it continued when he was on the bench. He walked past his teammates and leaned over with his hands on his knees, still furious. Then he returned to the sideline to yell at the refs. Center Ian Mahinmi helped convince him to step back and cool off.

Beal has made a major difference in this series. He averaged 14.0 points in the first two games, both losses. He has averaged 29.5 points in Games 3 and 4, two Wizards wins.

Getting him out of the game was a major break for the Raptors, but they couldn't take advantage. The Wizards closed the final five minutes on a 14-6 tear. John Wall stepped up to lead the charge with eight of those points.

The Wizards still had one star on the court and he played like one.

“Just go in attack mode," Wall said. "When Brad went out, I knew I had to do whatever it took... I just wanted to do whatever, so that we could advance to Game 5, tied 2-2.”

Once Beal composed himself, his confidence grew in his teammates. He and Wall feel comfortable playing without each other because they have done so often throughout their careers.

This year, Wall missed 41 games due to a left knee injury. Two years ago, Beal missed 27 games. Early on in his career, he had trouble staying healthy. Now he is an iron man who played in all 82 games during the 2017-18 regular season.

Beal has grown accustomed to being on the floor a lot, but he realized he can still affect the game from the sidelines.

"I just gathered my emotions, gathered my thoughts and told my team we were going to win, regardless. I knew if we still had John [Wall] in the game I loved our chances," Beal said. "Face the adversity that I had to overcome, just gather myself and be a leader, being vocal and keeping everyone encouraged in the game.”

Wall and others did the heavy lifting in the end. The Wizards used Kelly Oubre, Jr. as the shooting guard with Beal out and he made key plays down the stretch, including a steal on Kyle Lowry in the closing seconds.

The Wizards were thrown a significant curveball and they overcame it to put themselves in good position now having won two straight.

“You have to have resolve to win in this league," Brooks said. "You win playoff games and you win playoff series with having that. We have that, and we have to continue to have that because we have to win two more games and one of them has to be on the road."

When it comes to the officiating, the Wizards deserve credit for their resilience and restraint early in Game 4. The Raptors had 16 free throws in the first quarter compared to the Wizards' four. Washington perservered and ended up with more free throws (31) than the Raptors (30) did for the game.

In Game 1, the Wizards appeared to be affected by a lack of foul calls. That came was called loosely by the referees, while this one was officiated tightly. Though Beal went off, the Wizards for the most part stayed the course and were rewarded for it.

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The Wizards supplied all the highlights and fireworks; 5 must-see moments from Game 4

The Wizards supplied all the highlights and fireworks; 5 must-see moments from Game 4

WASHINGTON -- As the home team in a dire situation you have to take advantage, and that is exactly what the Washington Wizards did in their 106-98 win over the Toronto Raptors.

Highlight reel play after highlight reel play, the Wizards ignited the crowd with some of their best plays from the entire season to make it 2-2 in the series. Here are just a few of them:

1. John Wall collects posters in the first half

The first one was perhaps the best. Everything was going wrong for the Wizards, poor turnovers, bad shots, a three from Toronto. Then John Wall had enough. Not only did he fly past his defender Kyle Lowry, but he went up and slammed one home past the 7-foot Jonas Valanciunas. Up until that point, the Wizards were shooting 1-for-7.

Rinse and repeat, except this time Jakob Poeltl was Wall’s victim.

2. Wall to Beal alley-oop in transition

With the Wizards’ offense faltering, the Raptors remained on the verge of blowing the game open throughout the second quarter. But with a steal from Otto Porter Jr., Wall hung up the ball for Bradley Beal to slam home. The alley-oop kept the Wizards within single digits in the second with an uninspiring offensive effort.

3. Otto Porter breaks out of the half

A subdued offensive start to the game was due in part to the production from Porter. In the first half he went 0-for-4 with one point in nearly 17 minutes of action.

Throw that away in the second half. He broke out of halftime with back-to-back threes and 10 of the Wizards’ 26 in a monster 26-14 run to take the lead back in the third.

He finished the quarter with 10 points, an assist, and two blocks.

4. The Polish Hammer throwing it home

Are you convinced yet that Marcin Gortat’s new haircut is doing him some good? Gortat squeezed through two Raptors’ defenders, threw it down, gave a Goliath-type roar to the crowd before officially bringing the hammer down. 

5. Beal being called for his sixth foul of the game

Agree with the call or not, there is no denying that Beal’s removal from the game lit a fire underneath the Wizards. From that point Washington went on a 14-6 scoring run to end the game, closing out for the win.

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