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Wizards hold ground in playoff picture, but big January wouldn't hurt

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Wizards hold ground in playoff picture, but big January wouldn't hurt

Here's the good news: The Wizards remain firmly in the race for a playoff berth and can still dream about homecourt advantage in the opening round of the Eastern Conference playoffs.

Here's the other news: The East is no longer a joke, which means Washington must starting winning games at a much higher clip over the 52 games for either of those things to occur.

On Dec. 5 and with the Wizards at 8-9, I wrote the following about their last weeks of 2015:

In terms of the playoffs, things could get late early depending on how the Wizards handle their final 13 games of 2015. They could also vault into the ranks of conference title contenders.

The last of those matchups took place Wednesday in Toronto where Washington lost 94-91, sending John Wall and crew into the New Year on a two-game skid. The loss also was the difference between finishing over or under .500 in this randomly chosen stretch. Though the peaks (4-game winning streak) and valleys (1-3 road trip) were severe, the net result was a middling 6-7, dropping the Wizards to 14-16. 

Record is certainly important, but all relative to other competitors.

From Dec. 5:

The Orlando Magic and Boston Celtics currently occupy the final two playoff spots at 11-8. There are three teams between Orlando/Boston and Washington. There are only two teams between the Wizards and the 1-19 Philadelphia 76ers. At the same point, Washington is only four games behind the East-leading Cavaliers.

On Dec. 31, Washington is 11th in the East. That's up one spot in the standings with essentially the same winning percentage (.467). The Wizards are three games behind the Celtics (18-14) for the final playoff berth, 2.5 games behind the Hornets (17-14) and two games back of the Pistons (17-15).

Essentially, the Wizards held ground with the teams directly in front of them. Now, remember injuries essentially limited coach Randy Wittman to a seven-man rotation some nights. Bradley Beal missed the last 10 games. Otto Porter, Gary Neal, Kris Humphries and DeJuan Blair all watched games at times in street clothes. Nene and Drew Gooden didn't play at all. All but three of those opponents are also in the playoff mix. Holding ground with that scenario goes in the win column. 

The Celtics, one-half game behind the Heat and Pacers (18-13), remain in the eighth spot despite Wednesday's home loss to the Lakers as the crowd roared for Kobe Bryant's last appearance in the building. (Sound familiar?). 

However, the gap with teams at the top widened. Previously, the Wizards trailed the league-leader by four games. Now the Cavaliers (21-9) lead the East with a two-game lead over the Hawks and a full seven games over the Wizards. 

Obviously the first goal is securing a playoff berth, but good luck getting out of the first round as the eighth seed against LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. It only took 38 wins for a playoff slot last year and 40 for the seventh seed. Those totals won't cut it this season in the much improved conference. 

Boston's pace sets up for 46 wins while Miami, the current seventh seed, projects just shy of 48. For 48 wins, the Wizards must finish 34-18 over the final 52 games. 

Whether sincere or just a dream, any hopes of contending for the East title likely faded after the slow start. Finishing as one of the top four seeds for homecourt advantage in the opening round of the playoff always seemed like the most attainable goal. With 52 games remaining, the goal remains in play, but dicey.

Washington trails the fourth-place Bulls (18-12) and the fifth-place Magic (19-13). Orlando visits Chinatown New Year's Day.

Last season Toronto claimed the fourth seed with 49 wins and current season Chicago is essentially on that same trajectory. For 49 wins, the Wizards must finish 35-17.

All this sets up the next big stretch, otherwise known as January. Of Washington's 16 games during the month, 11 are at home. Even though the current Verizon Center record (7-8) isn't impressive, the month sets up nicely for a team looking for some momentum. In addition, 11 games are against Eastern Conference teams ahead of Washington in the standings. 

That also means 21 of the final 36 games will take place away from Chinatown, including 7 of the last 10. 

The Wizards must thrive in January for a realistic shot at a top-4 seed. If they only survive, then the focus of simply reaching the playoffs for a third straight year becomes the main story.

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Wizards Tipoff podcast: How they can keep it rolling in Game 5

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USA TODAY Sports

Wizards Tipoff podcast: How they can keep it rolling in Game 5

On the latest episode of the Wizards Tipoff podcast presented by Greenberg and Bederman, Chase Hughes, Travis Thomas and Julie Donaldson reset the series and looked ahead to Game 5.

They were joined by TSN Sports anchor Kayla Grey to find out the Toronto perspective. The Wizards have all the momentum in this series, now they just have to keep it going.

You can listen to the episode right here:

You can download the podcast on Apple Podcasts right here and on Google Play. If you like the show please tell your friends!

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Even after injury-riddled year, Wizards are seeing peak John Wall in playoffs

Even after injury-riddled year, Wizards are seeing peak John Wall in playoffs

You would not have known it by John Wall's towering poster-dunks over Jonas Valanciunas and Jakob Poeltl in Game 4, or his fourth quarter takeover after Bradley Beal fouled out, but Wall is still technically working his way into midseason form from the left knee surgery that kept him out more than two months down the stretch of the regular season. Add into the equation that he sprained his right ankle in Game 3, then resprained it in Game 4 right after Beal went out, and it's quite clear that what he is doing is simply not normal. 

Throughout Wall's recovery, his head coach Scott Brooks remarked how Wall can regain his form unusually quick following an injury absence. Game 4 was just his eighth game back, yet through four playoff games he is averaging an absurd 26.8 points, 13.0 assists, 5.0 rebounds, 3.0 steals and 1.0 blocks.

If that's what he's doing eight games removed from recovery, and against the top team in the Eastern Conference, what does peak playoff form look like? 

"I told y'all, I told all the media that I only need like three or four games. I really didn't need too many games," he said. "All the hard work that I did in those two months was to prepare myself to be ready for the playoffs."

Wall said he started feeling like himself in his final regular season game, his fourth outing following the injury rehab. It was against the Celtics and he scored 29 points to go along with 12 assists, seven rebounds, three blocks and three steals.

"I just started to see shots fall down that I was falling short with a couple games before that," Wall said of that night.

Brooks saw a change in Wall against the Cavaliers on April 5, in just his third game back. That game Wall put up 28 points, 14 assists, four rebounds and three steals. Most importantly, he logged 38 minutes.

"I knew I was going to challenge his body with extra minutes," Brooks said. "The way he responded to that, I knew he was back."

Whenever the turning point happened, there is no looking back. Wall has found his groove to not only impact, but at times dominate playoff games against one of the best defensive teams in basketball.

In Game 4 once Beal went down, Wall looked like the best player on the court. He scored eight of the Wizards' final 14 points to seal the victory and did so on a bum ankle. He outshined both DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, two All-Star guards.

Wall even played sound defense on DeRozan in big moments. DeRozan shot 10-for-29 in the game.

"I think I did a good job of contesting him," Wall said. "Just do whatever it takes to help this team win."

What Brooks predicted would happen has indeed played out. He has been with Wall for about two years now and knows what the star point guard is made of.

"I've been with him two years, he loves to play," Brooks said, noting there have been some tough conversations to convince him to come out of games.

Consider this: Wall has scored 20 points or more in six straight games, his longest streak of the 2017-18 season. He has actually reached 23 points or more in those six games, which is tied for the longest such streak of his entire career.

Through eight games overall and four games in the playoffs, Wall has reminded everyone of what the Wizards missed. Yes, they went 10-3 when he first went down with the injury in late January, but that was not sustainable.

They need Wall to reach their full potential as a team and especially in the postseason. Late-game situations like in Game 4, when Beal exited and it was tied with 4:58 to play, are when the superstars separate themselves.

Wall did that and now the Wizards are in good shape with the series at 2-2 and having won two straight.

"Blame everything on him," Brooks joked of the Wizards' up-and-down regular season. "If he wasn't hurt, we'd be better, right?"

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