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Gary Neal pays off most when Wizards deploy small lineups

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Gary Neal pays off most when Wizards deploy small lineups

In seasons past, when Bradley Beal was having an off-game or out extended time with an injury, coach Randy Wittman didn't have any real options for scorers until Gary Neal. A career 40% shooter from three-point range, he's at 46% in his first season with the Wizards.

All of a sudden, the Wizards (9-10) have options. They can spread the floor in ways they couldn't imagine with A.J. Price and Jordan Crawford in 2012-13, or Glen Rice and Eric Maynor in 2013-14. Garrett Temple can stick to what he does best, which is defending and hitting the occasional spot-up three-pointer like he did Monday when the Wizards took their largest lead at 38-24 over the Miami Heat.

And Neal can be the third scorer, especially now as the Wizards have resorted to small-ball lineups out of necessity because of injuries to Nene (calf), Drew Gooden (calf) and the absence of Marcin Gortat (personal leave).

"Right from the start, he was probably the most consistent guy we had throughout the game. He gave us a big lift," coach Randy Wittman said the 114-103 win in which Neal scored 21 points off the bench. "When we're going small like that to be able to have guys on the floor that can space it as well as put the ball on the floor and create a shot, I thought he did a great job."

In his last seven games, Neal is shooting 14 of 22, or 64%, from three-point range. But he's doing more than shooting. He is defending which is key to when Wittman goes to lineups where Jared Dudley, at 6-7, is playing center and Otto Porter is slotted at power forward. Neal also is creating off the dribble as defenders run him off the arc, getting inside the paint and either finishing there or kicking out to open shooters when the defense collapses. His four assists were a season-high.

"You kind of have to show that grit, have to show that toughness to even make it a game," Neal said of the Wizards going so small. "I think we did that. Offensively, we were able to make shots. That helped us win the game."

The dynamic has changed a bit. Neal had been sharing the floor with Nene, who the offense ran through with the second unit, as Ramon Sessions ran the point. Now he's playing more with the first-unit backcourt in the small-ball alignments. At $2.1 million for one season under the bi-annual exception, Neal is proving to be a steal. 

"They were expecting me to be a guy to score the ball off the bench. It was more important for me to find where my shots would come from with the second unit you're playing with Sesh, when we have a fully healthy group you got Nene out there," Neal said after scoring in double figures for the third game in a row. "You got a lot of guys who are also capable of scoring the ball. With the adjustment, with the injuries and small ball you got to figure out where your shots are going to come from with John (Wall) and Brad. It's a learning process."

MORE WIZARDS: Wall shows leadership by playing with pain

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Wizards hope meeting between superstar backcourt can jumpstart Bradley Beal's playoff production

Wizards hope meeting between superstar backcourt can jumpstart Bradley Beal's playoff production

With an 0-2 deficit in their first-round playoff series against the Raptors, Wizards head coach Scott Brooks called for a meeting with his two All-Star guards once his team returned to Washington. Brooks met with John Wall and Bradley Beal, hoping to solve an issue that plagued them particularly in Game 2, a blowout loss.

Brooks is intent on getting more out of Beal offensively and since Wall is the quarterback of their offense, it made sense to have him present. After Beal scored nine points and shot just 3-for-11 from the field and 1-for-5 from three, it is clear to Brooks that the Wizards need more to climb back in this series.

"We need to have Brad play well. It's no secret that you need your best players to step up and play well," Brooks said.

Both Brooks and Wall, who each spoke after Thursday's practice, said Beal needs to be more assertive in the offense. Beal averaged 28.8 points against the Raptors through four regular season games and Wall did not play in any of them. In theory, things should be easier for him now with another star player drawing attention.

That has not been the case, however. Beal is averaging 14.0 points through two games while shooting just 39.3 percent from the field and 27.3 percent from three. 

Even if his shot isn't falling, the Wizards want Beal to force the issue.

"I feel like I tell him at times that he needs to be more aggressive. Be more aggressive and look for your shot," Wall said. "He even says it that he has to be more aggressive himself. Even if he's missing or making shots. That's how he's been all season. We need that same type of player, to be aggressive and get at least 20 shots or more per game. That's when our team is probably at our best."

Beal has been limited to 14 shots per game by the Raptors when he averaged 18.1 during the regular season. Wall said he and Beal often talk within games about how Beal would like to be set up and the meeting with Brooks involved some of that dialogue.

While Beal's struggles stand out, the same could be said for Otto Porter, the Wizards' third-leading scorer. Porter was held to 12 points in Game 2 and did not attempt a single three-pointer. For a guy who finished third in the NBA in three-point percentage (44.1), that is difficult to justify.

Like Beal, the Wizards need Porter to impose his will a bit more and according to Brooks, the right lower leg strain he suffered late in the regular season is not to blame.

"He's 100 percent healthy," Brooks said. "It's always been a little bit of a problem. We want Otto to be more aggressive. We gotta run some more plays for him and the defense has done a good job on him. We need him to play well."

Like Beal, Porter had success against Toronto in the regular season. He averaged 18.5 points on 59.2 percent shooting, including a 24-point game on March 2. 

The Wizards need Beal and Porter to step up, knowing the series could hinge on if they do.

MORE ON THE WIZARDS-RAPTORS SERIES:

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Ty Lawson is playing a bigger role than anyone could have predicted for Wizards vs. Raptors

Ty Lawson is playing a bigger role than anyone could have predicted for Wizards vs. Raptors

The biggest surprise of the Wizards-Raptors series through two games, at least from Washington's perspective, has to be the fact Ty Lawson has very quickly earned a prominent role in Scott Brooks' playoff rotation.

Lawson, 30, was signed the day after the regular season and after he played much of 2017-18 in China with the Shandong Golden Stars. He did not appear in one game with the Wizards or any other NBA team during the regular season, yet he was the first point guard off the bench in Game 2.

When John Wall picked up two quick fouls, it was Lawson who got the nod, not Tomas Satoransky. Lawson ended up playing 31 minutes, more than Satoransky and fellow backup point guard Tim Frazier have earned combined through two games.

Though the Wizards had three point guards on their bench behind Wall before Lawson even signed, he has apparently surpassed them all on the depth chart. Satoransky is the most surprising, given he played quite well during the regular season.

Satoransky averaged 7.2 points, 3.9 assists and shot a team-best 46.5 percent from three. He had the highest offensive rating (124) on the team.

Lawson, though, played quite well in Game 2. He put up 14 points, eight assists and three rebounds while shooting 4-for-5 from three.

Lawson outscored four of the Wizards' five starters. Not bad for his first game.

"He did everything I knew he was capable of doing," Brooks said. "I’ve seen him do it for many, many years. He’s tough, he’s a competitor. He competes and pushes the pace. He plays defense. I liked the spirit."

Lawson provided a noticeable spark. He is still quick and aggressive with the ball, not afraid to look for his own shot, and played physical defense against the Raptors. Lawson ended the night plus-8 in the box score in a game the Wizards lost by 11.

"It’s good to see him get into a game and be able to produce for us," guard Bradley Beal said.

Given the Wizards lost Game 2 and face an 0-2 deficit in their series, it is likely that Brooks continues to alter his rotation in the coming games. He could go back to Satoransky more often, knowing he had some solid games against Toronto in the regular season, including on March 2 when he had 10 points, eight assists and six rebounds.

Satoransky could see more time at shooting guard or small forward and could play alongside Lawson. That might be Satoransky's best bet because Lawson did nothing in Game 2 to squander the opportunity.

For a team whose effort has been questioned by their head coach, Lawson's energy and urgency was noteworthy. He brought the edge of a guy playing for his NBA career, knowing a good playoff series could earn him a contract next season. 

Clearly, the way Lawson played was refreshing for Brooks given how long he kept him out on the floor. He may have come out of nowhere, but it looks like Lawson is here to stay.

MORE ON THE WIZARDS-RAPTORS SERIES:

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