Wizards

First-place Hawks are winning without Joe Johnson

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First-place Hawks are winning without Joe Johnson

ATLANTA (AP) The widely held assumption was the Hawks would take a step back this season after first-year general manager Danny Ferry cleared salary space for the future by trading Joe Johnson and Marvin Williams.

Look again.

With one quarter of the season gone, the Hawks rank as one of the NBA's biggest surprises.

Atlanta has won 11 of 13 games to move into a first-place tie with defending NBA champion Miami in the Southeast Division.

Al Horford said he isn't about to rebuke those who predicted the team would wilt without Johnson, a six-time All-Star. The Hawks' center said even Atlanta players had concerns a streak of five straight playoff seasons would be in jeopardy.

``That was one of the questions that even people in here, we were questioning ourselves,'' Horford said, looking around the Hawks' locker room. ``What was it going to be like? We didn't know what was going to happen.''

Coach Larry Drew's undersized Hawks are winning with defense and improved passing.

Undersized? Devin Harris, acquired for Marvin Williams, and free-agent signee Lou Williams joined point guard Jeff Teague in the backcourt.

Instead of having the 6-foot-7 Johnson at shooting guard and 6-foot-9 Marvin Williams at small forward, the Hawks often have two or even three players on the perimeter who are 6-foot-2 or shorter.

Charlotte coach Mike Dunlap noted the three guards give Drew's Hawks unusually strong direction and ball movement.

``He's loaded with quarterbacks,'' Dunlap said. ``And now he can play them at the wings. So that ball's going to move because they know how to move it and they know how to play the pick and roll.

``Their personnel department made a decision to go in and get some really good quarterbacks and that's rare in this league. You need two to back each other up at (point guard). But he's using them in a diverse way, so that's what makes it hard to play Atlanta.''

Ferry said he's not surprised to see three small point guards working together so well.

``I felt like it would work, that part of it, that offensively we would be able to do things off the dribble and spread the ball around because of having those three guys,'' Ferry said. ``Defensively, collectively the group has done a good job and that obviously has given us a better chance of getting off to the kind of start we've had. Now we have to sustain it and we have to keep getting better.''

Atlanta ranks fifth in the league with 22.8 assists and third with 9.3 steals per game. Defense is another strength as the Hawks rank fifth with 93.1 points allowed per game.

``We feel very excited where we're at as a team right now,'' Horford said. ``I think we've come together faster than we all expected. I just think there's an understanding we have a lot of work ahead and we can still get better.''

The Hawks beat Dunlap's Bobcats 113-90 on Thursday night as Harris scored a season-high 20 points. Lou Williams ranks third on the team with 13.8 points per game. Teague is averaging 13.3 points and a team-leading 6.3 assists.

Horford and Josh Smith are the new scoring leaders. Smith leads the team with 17.3 points. Horford is averaging a double-double with 16.3 points and 10 rebounds.

``I think we complement each other real well,'' Horford said. ``I think Josh is an unselfish player. I'm an unselfish player as well. I think we just want to win. I really want to win in the worst way and we're making it work with the team.''

Smith can be a free agent after the season. Ferry would not say if he hoped to negotiate with Smith before the end of the season.

``As I've said, we value Josh,'' Ferry said. ``Having players in your program like Josh is a positive thing. I'm not going to talk about negotiations.''

Johnson had four years and $90 million remaining on his contract when he was traded to the Nets for five players - none with long-term contracts - and a draft pick in July. Ferry then traded Marvin Williams to the Jazz for Harris, freeing another $15.7 million over two years.

Ferry also acquired 3-point specialist Kyle Korver from the Chicago Bulls for a trade exception and cash.

Atlanta waived two of the players it received for Johnson - forward Jordan Williams and Jordan Farmar- before training camp. The Hawks also obtained guards Anthony Morrow and DeShawn Stevenson and center Johan Petro, who has played only 11 minutes, in the trade.

Stevenson, 31, has started 11 games. At 6-5, he provides needed size and has been one of team's best 3-point shooters.

``Wins and losses, I'm very happy with where we are,'' Drew said. ``I thought this first quarter of the season we came together pretty well.''

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2017-18 Wizards roster review: Jodie Meeks

2017-18 Wizards roster review: Jodie Meeks

To wrap up the 2017-18 season, we are looking at each player on the Wizards' roster. Today, we evaluate Jodie Meeks' season...

Player: Jodie Meeks

Position: Shooting guard

Age: 30

2017-18 salary: $3.3 million

2017-18 stats: 77 G, 14.5 mpg, 6.3 ppg, 1.6 rpg, 0.9 apg, 0.4 spg, 0.1 bpg, 39.9 FG%, 34.3 3P%, 86.3 FT%, 49.1 eFG%, 111 ORtg, 112 DRtg

Best game: 11/29 at Sixers - 21 points, 4 rebounds, assist, steal, 5-for-11 FG, 3-for-6 3PT, 8-for-9 FT

Season review: The Wizards took a flier on Jodie Meeks last summer in what seemed at the time to be a low-risk contract with a potentially high reward, if he could stay healthy and play to his career norms. They were in obvious need of help at backup shooting guard and three-point shooting for their bench.

Meeks fell short of those expectations for a variety of reasons. Though he stayed healthy for the first time in years, he could not make shots at the clip the Wizards were hoping for. His field goal percentage was not far off from what he posted in recent years, but his three-point percentage was nowhere near the 38.8 percent he shot in his previous four seasons.

Meeks bottomed out midseason, shooting 28.9 percent from three in December and 28 percent in January. Those numbers ticked up beginning in February, but Meeks never fully gained the trust of his coaching staff. He rarely got hot enough to alter games and his best stat-lines often came in blowouts. 

There was a domino effect from Meeks' struggles, as starting shooting guard Bradley Beal had no one to spell him. As a result, Beal logged the fourth-most minutes of any NBA player this season.

For Meeks personally, it was a bittersweet year because staying healthy was no small feat. He had a run of bad luck and finally broke out of it this season. On the other hand, he never made the impact he felt he was capable of and that wasn't easy for a guy joining a new team and a new locker room.

Meeks' 2017-18 season was ultimately defined by more than his shooting woes. First, he expressed interest in a trade in February and did not get his wish. Then, he was suspended for allegedy using performance-enhancing drugs after the regular season ended. He was out for the playoffs and will miss the first 19 games of the 2018-19 season without pay as he waits out a 25-game ban.

Meeks may or may not serve that suspension as a member of the Wizards. He has a player option for next season worth $3.5 million. He has yet to inform the team of his decision, but the expectation is that he will pick it up. Given how poorly his season went and ended, it would likely be the smart move financially for him to opt in and hope for better results next season.

Potential to improve: Shooting percentage, perimeter defense, passing

More player season reviews:

John Wall, PG

Bradley Beal, SG

Otto Porter, SF

Markieff Morris, PF

Marcin Gortat, C

Kelly Oubre, Jr., SF

Tomas Satoransky, PG

Ian Mahinmi, C

Ty Lawson, PG

Tim Frazier, PG

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Want the Stanley Cup? Five ways the Caps can beat the Golden Knights

Want the Stanley Cup? Five ways the Caps can beat the Golden Knights

The Caps stand just four wins away from winning their first Stanley Cup. To get those four wins, however, they will have to beat the Vegas Golden Knights.

Here are the keys to the series that will give the Caps the win.

Figure out how to beat Marc-Andre Fleury

No player has been as important to his team this postseason as Fleury is to the Golden Knights. He is reason No. 1, 2 and 3 why they have made their improbable run to the Stanley Cup Final in the team’s inaugural season.

Fleury’s personal numbers are staggering. Through 15 games, he has a .947 save percentage and has recorded four shutouts.

Vegas has been a middle of the pack team in terms of offense this postseason scoring 2.87 goals per game. They have lost only three playoff games thus far, but, as dominant as they have been, they certainly are not blowing away the competition. Of their 12 wins, ten of them have come with a margin of victory of two goals or less.

This shows you just how important Fleury is to their success. They are not scoring opponents into submission, rather they are relying on Fleury to keep opponents at bay.

Fleury is the absolute key to the Golden Knights’ success. It’s easier said than done, but if the Caps find a way to beat him consistently, Vegas becomes exponentially more beatable.

Win the neutral zone battle

Much of this series will be determined between the blue lines. The Golden Knights are an incredibly fast team.

Just to get to this point, the Caps had to beat two other speedy teams in the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Tampa Bay Lightning. They did it primarily by slowing down the offense in the neutral zone with a 1-3-1 trap. With so many bodies defending in the neutral zone, opponents have struggled to break the puck cleanly into the Caps’ defensive zone. The Caps are cutting off passing and skating lanes, creating turnovers and generating odd-man breaks in the other direction by catching opponents’ defensemen playing too aggressively on the rush.

As fast as the Penguins and Lightning were, however, the Golden Knights are even faster. Will the trap be as effective against Vegas?

Limit obstruction penalties

When playing against a team with speed, penalties often become a major issue. When trying to defend against fast players, if you get caught flat-footed or out of position, this tends to lead to obstruction penalties like tripping and hooking. When a player realizes he’s been beat, he does everything he can to prevent that from costing his team, leading to those type of penalties.

Vegas’ power play has not been lights out by any means with a success rate of only 17.6-percent this postseason, but you cannot continually give the opposition chances to score by frequently having a player sent to the penalty box.

Positioning is going to make all the difference in the world in this series to make sure a player is not forced into taking an obstruction penalty just to slow down the Golden Knights.

Get off to good starts

Vegas is 10-1 in the postseason when scoring first. Their secret to success is a mix between goaltending and speed.

Fleury has been phenomenal in net and the Golden Knights are a quick breakout team. It is very hard to get much sustained offensive pressure against them because once they get the puck, they are going down the ice at a million miles an hour.

Having to play from behind against a team like Vegas is not a recipe for success. Just getting the puck and keeping up with them is exhausting. Having to then find a way to then beat Fleury when he has a lead to protect is all the more daunting.

Strong starts will be vital to ensuring the Caps are not frequently having to play from behind.

Depth scoring

Vegas head coach Gerard Gallant likes to roll his four lines. It makes sense since there drop-off between his top line and fourth line is not as dramatic as it is on most NHL teams.

Consider how this team was constructed. The expansion draft did not give Vegas access to superstar players, but they also did not have to take any fringe NHL/healthy scratch players to fill the fourth line either. They filled their roster with the best players available to them which gives them four lines of much more comparative strength than most NHL teams.

While this means the Caps have a stronger top six, it also allows Vegas to roll four lines and take advantage of other teams’ bottom six.

You can never take a shift off against Vegas. There is no weak line to exploit. The Golden Knights come at you with four lines and relentless pressure and forecheck for 60 minutes.

Washington will probably get more production from its top six than Vegas will, or at the very least it will be a push. The question is what kind of production will each team get from the bottom six? If the Caps have the edge in depth production as well, they will be in good shape.

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