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Wizards' supporting cast can lift John Wall to new heights


Wizards' supporting cast can lift John Wall to new heights

The trajectory of an NBA team can change quickly, but after the bottom falling out in a loss at the Chicago Bulls last week and struggling to get past the Philadelphia 76ers, the Wizards may have figured out that they can be pace-and-space and a good defensive team simultaneously as long as John Wall can be a two-way player and he has this kind of supporting cast.

Sunday, he orchestrated a near-perfect game against Kyrie Irving with 21 points, 13 assists and seven rebounds in just 29 minutes of a 113-99 win vs. the Cleveland Cavaliers in front of the ninth announced sellout at Verizon Center this season.

"We're building some good things here from our defensive thinking. We got to continue to think defense again," Wizards coach Randy Wittman said. "It starts with John. It's no question. He's in a position in this league, you don't get many nights off. Kyrie Irving, the kid (Stephen) Curry who's not too bad. Somebody that if you don't have that mentally in-tuned to playing, you can get embarrassed. He's been locked in more recently. It starts with him. It trickles down.

"I've been a believer in that my whole life in this game. The guards are out front. The backline people see those guys all the time. If they're soft, not up pressure, they're going to be soft."

It's often said that Wall is asked to do too much for the Wizards (28-30), but that's true of most actual max players (not the Wes Matthews-, Enes Kanter-types). LeBron James, who didn't play because of rest, does all the heavy-lifting most nights for Cleveland and he has Irving, Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson. 

It's the burden that most superstars not just have to carry but must embrace otherwise they're not superstars. But now that the Wizards' roster is the healthiest that hit has been all season, there's no excuse for Wall to be the reckless gambler that he was in a 109-104 loss at the Chicago Bulls on Wednesday, when E'Twaun Moore feasted. He has to balance aggression with discipline on both ends, like Chris Paul does routinely for the L.A. Clippers. Making 8 of 11 shots and holding his turnovers to three or less for the sixth time in seven games, Wall was at his best.

"LeBron is a big key to this team but they have guys, Kevin Love, Kyrie, J.R. (Smith) and those guys that can get hot," Wall said. "We did a great job pressuring them and moving the ball."

Take this version of Wall and give him more options in the form of Markieff Morris and Alan Anderson and the Wizards suddenly look not just a playoff team but a formidable one regardless of seeding if they're able to creep into the top eight.

Morris, who came off the bench again but started the third quarter for the second game in a row in place of Jared Dudley, was 4 of 8 for nine points, three rebounds and two steals. The Wizards were plus-22 with him on the floor. Anderson, still working his way back from left ankle surgeries, had five points, three rebounds, two assists and a steal in 15 minutes. They were plus-five.

"Markieff, he's been giving us that physical presence," Wall said. "We don't have to double-team as much. He can defend those guys one-on-one and he's giving us opportunities on the offensive side of the floor to make shots and put the ball on the floor and create opportunities for himself."


The Wizards' best defensive unit appears to involve a lot of their reserves, including Nene and Bradley Beal who still is on a minutes restriction. An 11-2 run to start the third quarter extended them to a 74-56 lead and it grew to 26 at the end. Then by the midway of the fourth, the reserves pushed the lead to as high as 30. Wall, Marcin Gortat and Otto Porter didn't even play in the fourth. Neither did Morris as he switched roles with Dudley.

"We showed up," Anderson said. "Our defense created our offense. When we do that, we attack, we're tough to guard. We got a lot of scorers out there. It's tough to guard everybody."

The Wizards play the 76ers at Verizon on Monday, will have Tuesday off and travel to Minnesota for a game Wednesday. In 5 of 7 games since the All-Star break they've held opponents to less than 100 points. They've won all five. 

"We don't have too many practices," Anderson said. "We got a lot of new pieces, healthier guys so any time we can't get more different rotations, different lineups and a feel for each other it's obviously going to help us out."

The Sixers went at Dudley with Nerlens Noel when they lost to the Wizards on Friday. That could put Morris, who was acquired in a trade at the deadline just a few weeks ago, in position to make his first start. 

"I like the way we're playing. Our rotations, we know when we're going to come in, when we're not and how to play. That's going to help us progress," Dudley said. "The question is is when is Brad going to start, is Keef going to start? That's another adjustment we'll have to make with our last 25 games when they decided to do that. After that we can roll."


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Road ahead suggests a wild finish in Eastern Conference playoff race

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Road ahead suggests a wild finish in Eastern Conference playoff race

The Eastern Conference standings are so closely bunched as of today that the third-place Cleveland Cavaliers are only 1 1/2 games ahead of the sixth-place Philadelphia 76ers. With roughly a dozen games remaining for each NBA team, much can and likely will change over the next several weeks.

That is common for this time of the year, but a closer look suggests we could be in for some chaos in the final stretch. There are lopsided remaining schedules and impending personnel changes which could all contribute to one of the wildest regular season finishes in recent memory.

The Wizards are smack dab in the middle of the East playoff race and have their own circumstances to navigate. Let's take a team-by-team look at the middle of the Eastern Conference playoff picture, knowing the top two seeds are all but locked up by the Toronto Raptors and Boston Celtics...


3. Cleveland Cavaliers (41-29, 12 games left)

Monday was a crazy day for the Cavaliers. First, they announced their head coach Tyronn Lue is taking a leave of absence to deal with an undiagnosed health issue. He will be replaced by associate head coach Larry Drew in the interim as he hopes to heal up before the playoffs.

Then, news broke they were getting Kevin Love back from a broken wrist after missing 21 games. Love returned to put up 18 points, seven rebounds, four assists and two blocks in a big win over the Milwaukee Bucks. 

The Cavaliers will be without their coach for an undefined period of time, but now have their second-best player back on the court. That makes their final part of the season extra fascinating.

The Cavs are the team to watch of this group. Even though this season has been filled with turmoil, they still have LeBron James. He and Love have helped form the core of the last three Eastern Conference champion teams. If they pick things up, it's not crazy to consider them among the favorites to get out of the East again.


4. Indiana Pacers (41-30, 11 games left)

The Pacers are mostly healthy as they only feature a slew of minor injuries to big men Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis. But Indiana's remaining schedule is unusually tough and it could make the difference in where they end up.

With only 11 games remaining, the Pacers still have to play the first-place Toronto Raptors once and the Golden State Warriors twice. Six of their last eight games will be on the road. They also see the Heat, Pelicans, Nuggets and Clippers.

The Clippers are currently ninth in the West and battling to make the playoffs. The Pacers will play them twice.

Keep in mind the Wizards own the season series over Indiana and will have a playoff seeding tiebreaker if they end up with the same record. Also worth noting is the Pacers have been much better at home (24-13) than on the road (17-17) this season.


5. Washington Wizards (40-30, 12 games left)

Though the Wizards' schedule is finally letting up soon from the 13 straight playoff teams stretch they have had to endure dating back to February, they too have a tough road ahead. The Wizards still have to play the Spurs (twice), Rockets, Cavaliers, Celtics and Nuggets. Four of their last six games are on the road and they have three back-to-back sets in their final seven games.

That's brutal. They may not have to see the defending champions twice like Indiana does, but the Wizards don't exactly have it easy.

The Wizards will, however, get John Wall back at some point. The five-time All-Star is slowly but surely working his way back and could participate in a full practice by the end of the week. Ideally they will get some games under his belt before the playoffs, but any time an All-NBA player is coming back to your team it's a good thing.

The problem is that there is little room for error in the standings and head coach Scott Brooks will have to reinsert Wall into the lineup during a tough schedule and while Wall is on a minutes restriction. It will be a tricky task to balance his lineups. 


6. Philadelphia 76ers (39-30, 13 games left)

The Sixers may have the most ideal road ahead of these four teams, at least in terms of their schedule. They still have the Timberwolves, Nuggets, Cavs and Bucks. But none of those teams are the juggernauts that Golden State, Houston and Toronto are. And of their final 13 games, the Sixers will play nine against teams outside of the playoff picture.

Philly also does not have to reincorporate a major piece into their rotation, like the Cavs do with Love and the Wizards with Wall. Their biggest injury is to Markelle Fultz, the 2017 No. 1 overall pick. If he does return this season, it will likely be in a minimal role, at least to start.

What could work against the Sixers is their inexperience and recent struggles against good teams. The Sixers are relying on very young players who have never been here before to carry the way. And since Valentine's Day, Philly has just one win against a team above the .500 mark, when they beat the Cavs on March 1. During those 14 games since Feb. 14, they have beaten up on the bad teams but lost to the Wizards, Bucks, Pacers and Heat (twice), basically all the teams surrounding them in the standings. 

Philly also lost their season series against the Cavs and Pacers, tied with the Wizards and are down 2-1 against the Bucks with one game to go. They may go to the finish line without a playoff tiebreaker against all the teams they would want one against.

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Oklahoma star freshman Trae Young to enter NBA Draft

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Oklahoma star freshman Trae Young to enter NBA Draft

After a sensational freshman season at the University of Oklahoma, point guard Trae Young plans to enter the 2018 NBA Draft, according to a report by ESPN.

Young will be one of the most fascinating prospects in this class given the extreme highs and lows of his one college season. He vaulted into the top 10 in most mock drafts after beginning his freshman year on fire, but then began to slip over the final months as his shooting percentage dropped.


Right now the Wizards are lined up to be in the late teens, so it's unlikely he falls to their range. But at this point it's difficult to predict where he will go, whether that is top five or later in the lottery.

It really could go either way. Some teams may see him as a Steph Curry-like scorer who can hit shots from unusually deep range. There were certainly times where Young backed up those comparisons.

Teams could see his flaws as a result of opposing defenses honing in on him because they could at the college level. In the NBA he may have more space and therefore be able to play to his strengths.


Or, teams could look at the fact he shot 36.1 percent from three on a whopping 10.2 attempts per game as a sign he is a chucker. He also led the nation in turnovers, commiting 24 more than the next guy. Young averaged 5.2 giveaways per game.

While Curry is the best-case scenario, Jimmer Fredette may be the worst-case. Fredette was the 10th overall pick in 2011 and now plays in China. 

Young will be an intriguing prospect in the draft because the ceiling is high and the basement is low. 

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