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Morning tip: Wizards struggle through first quarter of season but bright spots exist

Morning tip: Wizards struggle through first quarter of season but bright spots exist

The season is 21 games old, or one-quarter complete, and the Wizards sit at 8-13 in a season full of curveballs following Thursday’s 92-85 win vs. the Denver Nuggets at Verizon Center.

This isn’t who they thought they were coming into the season after 41-41 and being out of the playoffs. President Ernie Grunfeld told CSNmidatlantic.com before the first game Oct. 27 that he expected coach Scott Brooks to produce a playoff team.

A lot has gone wrong, but some things have gone right:

--Ian Mahinmi, expected to be the anchor of the second unit because of his ability to protect the rim and play away from it in a pick-and-roll heavy league, has played just one game because of his knees. First, it was left knee surgery. Now it's tendinitis in the right one. Mahinmi will be held out of practice at least a week before he's re-evaluated, and his absence has forced Brooks to play Jason Smith likely more than he'd planned and Andrew Nicholson out of position.

--The backcourt of Trey Burke and Marcus Thornton hasn't worked, and in the former's case a second-round pick was given up to acquire him. Burke has shown recent signs of being viable with the second unit as he's more comfortable playing as a scorer rather than as a initiator of the offense. Tomas Satoransky has fallen out of the rotation though he has promise. He has to work on his jump shot to expand his game. Ultimately, he'll be the backup point guard but he was forced into duty sooner than Brooks anticipated, too. 

--The defense of John Wall and Markieff Morris hasn't been up to par for the first unit. With Wall, it's the dribble pentration that's allowed into the paint. He can defend, but gambling for steals costs him and he doesn't appear to always trust his teammates. Morris has been spectacular at times, most notably int he way he defended Paul Millsap of the Atlanta Hawks and in the first two meetings with Serge Ibaka of the Orlando Magic. Since then, he hasn't been as good and his help rotations have been slow or half-hearted. Like Wall, it's not a matter of IQ or ability. And during the game with Denver, Morris was on completely different pages during key stretches late with Gortat. Wall and Morris each have five technical fouls, an indication that frustration in games may be eroding their focus as they harp on the officiating. Each has been ejected once.

--Otto Porter is a good defender. Among the starters, he has probably been the best though Beal is trending upward. Where Porter suffers, however, is against bigger players at small forward. He lacks the physical strength to deal with the elite ones though he did show well in a win over Carmelo Anthony and the New York Knicks. Just as important, Porter's vulnerable to pick-and-roll coverages and dribble handoffs/pitches because he's not physical enough to blow up the action as Brooks would like. 

--The chemistry is off. This goes for starters to a lesser degree (primarily defensively), but at times they all look as if they're sharing the court together for the first time. Blown coverages, confusion about the play calls and not getting back in transition defense. These kinks should've been eliminated this deep into the process. 

--Kelly Oubre has been up and down, but lately he has been on the uptick. Brooks can go with him in the lineup with Porter, making them a more formidable defensive team. Oubre is the team's best defender as long as he keeps composure.

--Wall has scored a career-high 52 points. Beal has scored a career-high 42 points. Each has career-high averages as well. They're prospering on the court together at a level that they haven't in their previous years. The struggles of this team isn't because these two don't vibe well. 

--Sheldon McClellan is in the D-League, but he at least could be ready to defend on an NBA level. He has a ways to go on the offensive end, but when he started a game vs. the Chicago Bulls he gained the respect of Dwyane Wade. The undrafted rookie has promise though it might take a minute before it comes to fruition on the court. 

-- Offensively, Porter has reached the next level and has been the consistent third scorer that they've been missing. 

--Brooks' temperament gives them a chance to turn things around. There have been ample opportunities for the first-year coach to blow a gasket, toss his players under the bus and label them as "soft." He hasn't done that nor will he, and the equity he could be earning with his players could pay dividends in the long run. 

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After getting little rest during All-Star break, Bradley Beal aims to be smart in second half

After getting little rest during All-Star break, Bradley Beal aims to be smart in second half

If anyone on the Wizards deserves some time off to rest it's Bradley Beal, who currently ranks fifth in the NBA in total minutes played. While his teammates were off on vacation, many of them at relaxing beaches far away, Beal was making appearance after appearance in Los Angeles as part of All-Star weekend.

The one drawback of Beal being selected as an All-Star and a contestant in the three-point contest was that he got little rest in the past week. He only made it one round in the three-point contest and played 16 minutes in the All-Star Game, but all of it was enough to soak up much of the free time he's used to getting this time of the year.

"Not as much as I needed to," Beal said when asked if he got any rest over the break. "I guess that's one of the downfalls of being an All-Star."

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The workload has really added up for Beal. He leads the Wizards in minutes (36.4/g) and is one of two players on the team who hasn't missed a game all season.

Beal did have Monday and Tuesday off, but that was after a crosscountry flight and a whirlwind of a weekend. He called the media and sponsorship appearances "overwhelming." Many All-Stars have been there before and know what to expect, but Beal was a first-time participant.

Beal and the Wizards will be given no breaks with their upcoming schedule. They have four back-to-back sets in the next three weeks and begin with a stretch of five games in seven days. Those games will feature the Cavs, Warriors, Bucks, Sixers and the Hornets. Charlotte is the only team of that bunch currently out of the playoff picture, but they have already beaten the Wizards twice this season.

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For Beal, it will be extra important to get any rest that he can.

"I will definitely be smart," he said. "I just gotta take care of my body. Listen to my body."

Beal says getting treatment from the Wizards' training staff in between games will be crucial. He also hopes to not over-exert himself in games by trusting his teammates and not trying to carry the load with John Wall out.

Though Beal may be tired from the weekend, he came out of it feeling pretty good about how he represented himself and the Wizards on the All-Star stage. He scored 14 points in 16 minutes in a game featuring the best players on the planet.

Beal now wants to make it an annual thing.

"I defintiely think it can push you more down the line. For me, it's just motivation to continue geting better," he said.

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Scott Brooks preparing Wizards for much tougher road ahead

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USA Today Sports Images

Scott Brooks preparing Wizards for much tougher road ahead

The Wizards entered the All-Star break having won seven of their previous nine games since John Wall went down with an injury, so a natural question to head coach Scott Brooks looking ahead to their first game back on Thursday was how he and his team can keep that momentum going in the second half.

Brooks immediately pointed to the Wizards' schedule, which gets notably more difficult in the coming weeks. They have a stretch of games over the next month-plus that features the best teams in basketball and Brooks knows that will be a big factor in whether they can sustain what they have going.

"Definitely the schedule gets tougher," Brooks said. "We've got a lot of good teams coming up starting with the first one in Cleveland. It's five games in seven nights against really good teams."

PODCAST: BIGGEST STORYLINES COMING OUT OF ALL-STAR BREAK

In the next five weeks, the Wizards will play 15 of 17 games against teams currently holding playoff spots. That includes the Cavaliers, Warriors, Celtics, Spurs (twice), Raptors and Timberwolves. 

That will represent a marked shift for the Wizards, who to this point have the weakest strength of schedule. Though they boast impressive wins over the Celtics, Rockets, Raptors and Timberwolves, they are about to play teams of that caliber more frequently with few nights off to rest. They have four back-to-back sets all in the next three weeks.

The upcoming stretch has been on the Wizards' minds for a while. Several players referenced their tough schedule before the All-Star break, knowing those wins leading up to the time off could prove extra important in hindsight.

The Wizards return to action on Thursday night against the Cavaliers, a team that has already beaten them twice. Both of those games were against the old version of the Cavs before they traded much of their roster at the deadline.

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Gone are Dwyane Wade, Derrick Rose, Isaiah Thomas, Iman Shumpert, Jae Crowder and Channing Frye. But they still have that guy LeBron James.

"Shoot, they looked good the other time, right? They beat us twice with the other group," Brooks noted. "LeBron is going to go down as one of the best ever. They are younger and more athletic. They're a good team and they still have an All-Star in [Kevin] Love who hasn't played because he's hurt."

The Cavs haven't lost in three games since the All-Star break and that includes road wins over the Celtics and Thunder. They look rejuvenated and, at least so far, improved from the aging, incongruent roster they had just weeks ago.

The Wizards have also been playing better lately, of course, and this upcoming stretch will be a major test for them. Wall has been out three weeks since he had arthroscopic surgery on his left knee. He is likely to miss another three-to-five weeks. The Wizards will have to get through this without him.

If they can remain competitive and even beat some of these elite teams, they will only gain more confidence in their potential. That's the way Brooks plans to approach the schedule.

"We still want to be a better team when John comes back," Brooks said. "But the schedule definitely gets a lot tougher."

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