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Wizards clinch playoff spot for third time in four years

Wizards clinch playoff spot for third time in four years

Months after overcoming a dreadful 2-8 start and weeks after a trade deadline overhaul for their bench, the Washington Wizards (44-28) have clinched a spot in the NBA Playoffs for the third time in four years and in the first season of head coach Scott Brooks' tenure. They punched their ticket on Friday night with a win over the Nets and losses for both the Pistons and Bulls. The Wizards are officially back in a place they feel they belong.

This is the 28th time in franchise history that the Wizards will head to the postseason and this territory is nothing new for the current group led by star guards John Wall and Bradley Beal. But the expectations for this team may be higher now than they have been in decades. For the first time in a long time, the Wizards feel they can do some real damage and possibly reach the Eastern Conference Finals or beyond. 

What a difference a year makes for a team that just 11 months ago fired Randy Wittman following a 41-41 campaign that did not end in a playoff berth.

"It's great. The way we finished last year wasn't good for us," Wall said. "We wanted to go to the playoffs. We fell magnificently short of that. Then to come back, the way we started the season wasn't the way we wanted. We never threw anybody under the bus. We always stayed together as a team. I think that's the most important thing as a group, that we all figured it out. We all figured it out. We have a great run going. We just want to finish the season strong going into the playoffs."

The Wizards' turnaround began in December. They were 7-13 on Dec. 8 and had lost four of six, but since they have gone 37-15. That includes a stretch where they won 18 of 21 games before the NBA All-Star break.

Those losing days of November and December now seem like a distant memory with the Wizards on pace to win over 50 games for the first time since 1979.

"It's a journey. It's amazing to see the work that you put in," Beal said. "Last year was a disappointment for us. We wanted to be in the playoffs. This year we had no choice, we want to get in and this year we have more goals. We want to get [the] second [seed] now. Now we want to get to the Eastern Conference Finals. We want to try our best to get there."

As Beal alluded to, the Wizards still have short-term goals for the final 10 games of this season. They are 2 1/2 games behind the Celtics at third in the standings and would still like to pass them. But either way, the Wizards should enter the playoffs with an opportunity to reach the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since 1978-79, a span of 38 seasons. No D.C. major sports team (NBA, NFL, NHL, MLB) has reached the semfinals of their league since the Capitals in 1998. That's the longest streak among cities with at least three major sports teams in American sports.

Each time the Wizards made the playoffs in the Wall and Beal era, they advanced at least one round. In 2013-14 they beat the Bulls in the first round, then lost to the Pacers. The following season they swept the Raptors in the first round, then lost to the Hawks after Wall broke his wrist.

Now they are back and appear well-equipped for a deep run. Both Wall and Beal are two years older, enjoying good health and the best seasons of their careers. Otto Porter has emerged as one of the best three-point shooting threats in basketball. Markieff Morris has added a new element as a stretch four with versatility on defense. Marcin Gortat is rebounding more than ever before in his nine-year NBA career.

The Wizards have had deep benches before and their current group is starting to round into form. Bojan Bogdanovic can stretch the floor and get hot from three. Ian Mahinmi is a legitimate rim protector. Kelly Oubre, Jr. has infused youth and a unique ability to guard multiple positions on defense. Jason Smith always seems to provide a spark, whether it's with midrange shooting or rebounding. And Brandon Jennings now can keep the offense moving when Wall takes a rest.

Washington has star power and depth and that should bode well in April, May and June against whomever they face.

"It says a lot about our team," Brooks said about his team's turnaround. "It says a lot about our staff, not just the coaches, but our entire staff. We just keep charging ahead and doing our jobs. I love that about our team. We want to establish a culture that we all have a responsibility to one another to work hard and give everybody our best effort. That has happened. We've got 44 wins. It's good. We want to keep getting better."

The Wizards have stated their goal of obtaining a top three seed and it won't be easy. Breathing down their neck are the Raptors, who are just a game back in fourth place. If the Wizards fall to fourth, they could risk seeing the top seeded Cavaliers in the second round. Facing the best team in the conference that early would not be ideal.

Also standing in the Wizards way are the Celtics, who they could match up with in the second round. As for the first round, they are currently slotted to face the Milwaukee Bucks, who happen to be the hottest team in the East at the moment.

The Wizards have 10 regular season games left and bigger goals in mind. But on Friday they gave themselves an opportunity they had waited two long years for.

[RELATED: Markieff Morris on his slump, looking ahead to first playoffs]

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Markieff Morris set tone for Wizards, who finally got back to 'Death Row mentality'

Markieff Morris set tone for Wizards, who finally got back to 'Death Row mentality'

Perhaps Toronto and their fans would disagree, but through two games the first round playoff series between the Wizards and Raptors had been relatively uneventful, maybe even boring to the casual observer. For those who have watched the Wizards in recent years, something just seemed off with them.

Not only were Bradley Beal and Otto Porter struggling to score, but the energy and grit we're used to from the Wizards in the postseason just wasn't there. Three minutes into Game 3 on Friday night, that all changed.

Wizards forward Markieff Morris got tangled with Raptors rookie OG Anunoby and fell to the ground. He rose up, shoved Anunoby and gave Serge Ibaka a push for good measure. It cost Morris a technical, but he wasn't ejected. From there, the tone was set.

This was to be a physical game and the Wizards were going to make sure of it. That's how they prefer to play and that nastiness had been missing thus far in this series.

"I think OG [Anunoby] did not know the scouting report because he did not know that Keef is one of the people you do not mess with in this world," forward Kelly Oubre, Jr. said. "He will learn.”

The fireworks didn't end there. Beal and Jonas Valanciunas got into it and so did John Wall and Anunoby, and then Wall and Ibaka.

The Wizards made a name for themselves in the 2016-17 season when they won 49 games and were one win away from the conference finals as a team that would instigate contact and talk trash. They prided themselves on being old school in that regard and were praised for it by former NBA tough guys like Paul Pierce and Stephen Jackson.

This season, they just haven't been able to do it as often.

"We have been there at spurts throughout the year, we just have not been there consistently," Oubre said. "Now it is do or die. We just need to bring that Death Row mentality.”

Oubre also joked that rapper Drake started it all by sitting courtside in Toronto and talking trash. Truthfully, their backs were against the wall and they had no choice but to punch back.

The Wizards entered Friday's game down 0-2 to the Raptors with Game 2 a dispirited blowout. If they went down 0-3, they would essentially have been dead in the water. No team has come back from that deficit in NBA history.

This time, they weren't going to go down without a fight.

"It sounds crazy, but sometimes we need that. The crazy part is that it's always [Morris]," center Marcin Gortat said. "If you see your teammate fighting, I'm going to fight with him. That's the bottom-line."

"We came out tonight with an edge about ourselves," Beal said. "Keef is a bully... we are physical team." 

As for Morris, the enforcer himself, he let his actions speak for themselves. He didn't take the bait on most questions, but did wear a 'Death Row D.C.' shirt during his media availability. Morris came up with that nickname last season to convey the toughness he wants the Wizards to play with.

"We need some physicality," Morris said. "I feel like when we were in Toronto, they were doing everything too freely. This kind of set the tone for the whole series... we need to keep our same mean mentality. If they wanna fight, we will fight."

The Wizards fought the Hawks and Celtics last year tooth-and-nail and often used physical play to their advantage. It worked in Game 3 against the Raptors. Now the Wizards will have to counter however Toronto chooses to respond.

MORE FROM WIZARDS-RAPTORS SERIES:

MUST-SEE MOMENTS FROM WILD GAME 3

BEAL GOT AN APOLOGY FROM SCOTT BROOKS

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Physicality, the spark from Oubre; 5 must-see moments from Wizards Game 3 win

Physicality, the spark from Oubre; 5 must-see moments from Wizards Game 3 win

The Washington Wizards wasted no time in their playoff return to Capital One Arena to jump back into this series. Now behind 2-1 to the Toronto Raptors, Washington is back in the series. Here are the top moments from the 122-103 win:

1. It got physical early.

Is it bad luck to bring back #DeathrowDC? It only took the Wizards and Markieff Morris three minutes to get into a shoving match with OG Anunoby and the Raptors. Double technicals were both issued after this scuffle but it set the tone for the remainder of the game. From here the Wizards exerted their physicality.

2. Kelly Oubre providing the spark off the bench

Early on it was creeping toward another outstanding Raptors offensive performance, like we saw in Game 1 and Game 2. They were up 27-18 with two minutes left in the first quarter. Once the bench got their first opportunity to get into the game, Kelly Oubre Jr. provided that spark to get back the Wizards into it. In the midst of a 14-2 run from the first going into the second quarter, Oubre had four of his 13 points, including a monstrous dunk off of a loose ball.

3. Beal to Wall, back to Beal

For those that do not believe that John Wall and Bradley Beal are two of the best passers in the league, look no further than this play. Not only does Beal thread the needle, but Wall has the wherewithal to get the ball back to Beal for the lay-in.

4. A fire was lit under John Wall

It wasn’t just the double-double (28 points, 14 assists), playoff John Wall is officially back. He made that evident with countless hustle plays especially on defense to turn this game around. Moments later, the Wizards pushed the lead up to 20 for the first time and had Capital One Arena rocking.

5. Ty Lawson’s buzzer-beater

When playing the Raptors, you can never rule out a comeback. Throughout the third quarter Toronto kept nipping at the Wizards’ lead, but newly acquired Ty Lawson shut down any threat of that heading into the fourth.