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Wizards' recent skid is creating undue pressure as they await John Wall's return

Wizards' recent skid is creating undue pressure as they await John Wall's return

While the news on John Wall's rehab continues to trend in the right direction, the exact opposite has been the case for the Washington Wizards' peformance in recent games.

They have lost five of their last seven games and only have 14 left before the playoffs begin. They lost to the Timberwolves on Tuesday night after leading by 10 in the fourth quarter. Now they head to Boston for a bout with the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference.

What stood out about Tuesday's loss is something head coach Scott Brooks has been harping on for days. They once again gave up too many points in the paint.

The Timberwolves dropped 64 paint points, the fourth game in a row the Wizards have allowed 60 or more. They gave up 76 to the Miami Heat in their previous game, a blowout loss on the road.

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The Wizards aren't exactly elite at preventing paint points, as they rank 20th in the NBA with 45.6 per game. But giving up 64, as they did to Minnesota, is a major difference. 

As for why the Wizards are allowing so many buckets in the lane, Brooks pointed to several things.

“We're getting beat on backdoors, we're getting beat off the dribble. If you do that, you can't expect your bigs to protect you every time. You got to guard, you got to guard the ball," he said.

Basically, the Wizards can't stop penetration at the perimeter. The Wizards do not feature a prolific rim protector and as a result require more emphasis on their guards and wings stopping the ball.

When their perimeter defense is leaky, as it has been in recent games, it puts too much pressure on Marcin Gortat, Markieff Morris and Ian Mahinmi, who do not have the shotblocking skills to clean up the messes of others.

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All of this is a familiar refrain, as that was a major problem for the Wizards earlier this season. Things were cleaned up for a while once Wall went down with his left knee injury because a healthy Tomas Satoransky represented an upgrade over a hobbled Wall. But Satoransky and the Wizards' guards are not finding the same success anymore.

The frustration was clear for Brooks who ended his postgame press conference abruptly on Tuesday. He said few words, but mentioned something else that was reminiscent of a few months ago.

"Defensive mistakes, we're continually making them," he said. "We got to get stops, and we got to stop worrying about scoring.”

When the Wizards were at their lowest points months ago, the idea of "worrying about scoring" was a common theme in different variations. Some players suggested others were selfishly chasing individual stats. Overall, the concept of focusing on scoring points to the detriment of playing defense was consistently referenced.

As the ugly habits are returning for the Wizards, Wall is approaching a major milestone in his recovery from arthroscopic left knee surgery. He is set to practice as early as Friday following days of shooting routines and, most recently, five-on-zero drills.

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Once he practices, it will only be a matter of time before he is returning to game action. There are just a few more steps he needs to take and he will likely be back within the next two weeks.

The Wizards just have to make do for a little while longer. At one point, when the Wizards started out 10-3 following Wall's injury, debates broke out about whether the Wizards are better without Wall. Right now, they could clearly use a boost and his return would qualify. 

The end of Wall's recovery is inching closer, but they are not in clear. The good news is that despite losing five of seven, the Wizards haven't lost much ground in the playoff race. They were as high as fourth, but currently sit fifth in the East. Though they are lined up to play LeBron James and the Cavs in the first round if the playoffs began today, fifth is not bad at all.

Also worth noting is the fact the Wizards' magic number to make the playoffs is just seven games. Even though they lost to the Wolves on Tuesday, that number dropped by one thanks to the Pistons losing to the Jazz.

But the Wizards need to turn things around before they do suffer real damage in the standings. Wall is getting closer, but he's not there yet. Those remaining need to get back to what made them successful during the initial part of his absence. If they don't, more urgency will be created for Wall's return and that's not what they want.

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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.

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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.

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