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Houston's Johnson looks to build on best season

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Houston's Johnson looks to build on best season

HOUSTON (AP) Houston's Andre Johnson heard the whispers he'd lost a step and that he'd never again be an elite receiver as he struggled through the worst season of his career in 2011.

He didn't let it get him down.

Johnson used it as motivation, and bounced back from last year's 492-yard season with a career-high 1,598 yards receiving this season.

Now he's looking to do more as the Texans prepare for Saturday's playoff game against the Bengals.

His performance this season has left him with Jerry Rice and Marvin Harrison as the only players in NFL history with at least three seasons with 1,500 yards receiving. He also reached the mark in 2008 and 2009.

Johnson has 112 catches this season for his fourth career 100-catch year and his most since finishing with 115 catches in 2008. He was recently selected to his sixth Pro Bowl and has more than 11,000 yards receiving in his career.

Coach Gary Kubiak calls Johnson's season ``amazing'', and loves the way he leads the Texans by example with his hard work and positive attitude.

``I've been fortunate to be around some special players, but I really count my blessings with this one,'' Kubiak said. ``He's a heck of a player, but a great kid, too.''

Johnson has had success against Cincinnati, and is averaging 122.7 yards receiving in his past three games against the Bengals.

He's disappointed that the team has struggled recently, losing three of its past four games. But he believes they'll turn things around on Saturday.

``We just haven't been playing football the way that we know how to play it,'' Johnson said. ``We just have to get back to what we have done earlier during the season. Find that same kind of focus and everybody just lock into what they're doing and just go play football the way we know how to play it.''

Johnson got off to a slow start this season after being hampered by minor injuries in training camp. But he has been on a roll in the past seven games, piling up 1,001 yards. Johnson has six 100-yard games this season, including a career-best 273 yards receiving in a win over the Jaguars.

Bengals coach Marvin Lewis doesn't believe it's possible to shut down Johnson, but they do hope to limit his catches.

``He's a fine, fine player and I don't know about shutting (him) down and if you can ... do that because as we know, it's a two-pronged attack there with both the running game and the throwing game that comes off of it,'' Lewis said. ``You really have to play really sound, sound defensive football in order to do that.''

Johnson has a lot of respect for the Bengals, and knows Houston will have to play much better than it has been to win on Saturday.

``(They) might be the most talented defense we probably have faced,'' Johnson said. ``They've been playing good football, a lot of good players on the back end, so it'll be a big challenge for us.''

Johnson, who is the longest-tenured Texan, waited eight seasons before finally making the playoffs for the first time last season. His second trip will be very similar to the first with Houston hosting Cincinnati in a wild-card game for the second straight season.

``It's not new,'' Johnson said. ``Last year it was new to us. This time it's not new. It's crazy that we're in the same place we were in last year, playing the same team. It'll be big. And we'll be ready to go.''

One player it will be new to is quarterback Matt Schaub, who missed last year's playoff run with an injured foot. Much of the blame for Houston's recent slump has been directed at Schaub.

``That's just part of it,'' Johnson said. ``When the team is not playing well, the quarterback is going to take most of the criticism. It's all about how you respond. We have another game Saturday, so however he goes out and plays Saturday that's what people will talk about.''

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Rui Hachimura's learning curve can be seen on offense late in games

Rui Hachimura's learning curve can be seen on offense late in games

WASHINGTON -- Wizards forward Rui Hachimura has translated so smoothly to the NBA level that it is easy to forget he is still just a rookie with only 31 games under his belt. For a reminder of his inexperience, just look at the fourth quarter.

Hachimura tends to start games hot on the offensive end, like he did on Friday in the Wizards' loss to the Cavaliers when he had eight points by the end of the first quarter. But he scored only nine points after that and went scoreless through seven minutes in the fourth.

That has been a consistent theme for him this season. He averages 4.8 points in the first quarter shooting 48.4 percent from the field, 4.0 points in the second shooting 57 percent and then 4.3 points on 47.9 percent in the third. In the fourth quarter those numbers plummet to 1.9 points on average and 33.3 percent shooting.

Basically, Hachimura often comes out on fire but then slows down considerably once opponents make midgame changes. Against the Cavs, Hachimura said it was because they disrupted passing lanes.

"They are an NBA team. They just adjusted. They didn't want me to catch the ball. They didn't let me just catch the ball. I think that's why," he said.

The Wizards have seen teams switch defensive match-ups midgame to counter Hachimura. Sometimes taking away his midrange jumper will be prioritized. The Cavs seemed to find success playing Hachimura more physically in the second half, bumping him away from his comfort zones.

Over time, Hachimura can improve his ability to sustain scoring throughout games simply by becoming more versatile. The more consistent he becomes at making three-point shots and creating off the dribble, the more difficult it will be for teams to stop him. As long as he keeps improving, he will reach a point where he can stay ahead of the defense with a multitude of counters.

Developing a more reliable outside game and more dribble combinations will take some time. For now, Hachimura believes the key to him keeping up his scoring pace involves working with his teammates, particularly star shooting guard Bradley Beal.

"I just gotta connect more with Brad. Brad is the one everybody is trying to guard. Screens and pick-and-rolls with him, that kind of stuff will help me," Hachimura said.

Hachimura's game against the Cavaliers reflected how the team played overall. After scoring 41 points in the first quarter, they managed only 42 in the second half. They blew a 16-point lead and lost, 113-108.

So, he wasn't alone. And those rooting for Hachimura to round out his game should feel good about his odds. He has a relentless work ethic and is often staying after practice to go over film with player development coach Dave Adkins.

Hachimura is perceptive and driven to improve. In order to take the next step as a scorer, he will have to get better at closing games.

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Want to witness history? Why Saturday's game is a good bet for Alex Ovechkin to score 700

Want to witness history? Why Saturday's game is a good bet for Alex Ovechkin to score 700

Alex Ovechkin is capable of scoring any time against any team, but if you're trying to pinpoint when history could happen and see goal No. 700, there are plenty of reasons to be watching Saturday's marquee matchup against the New Jersey Devils (1 p.m., NBC Sports Washington).

In three games this season, Ovechkin has scored four times against New Jersey. On Jan. 16, he was bloodied by a high stick from Miles Wood and left for the locker room returning before the first period was up and scored twice. He did not just get mad, he got even and completed the hat trick in the third period.

Head coach Alain Nasreddine did not reveal who his starter would be in net on Friday, but it will be either MacKenzie Blackwood or Cory Schneider. Keep your fingers crossed for Schneider.

Schneider has not played an NHL game since Jan. 18 and was recalled from the AHL on Thursday most likely because Louis Domingue is headed out of town in a trade and the team wanted to protect the asset. Schneider has a 4.65 GAA and .852 save percentage in nine games. Ovechkin has also had plenty of success against him in the past, scoring eight times against the Devils netminder. He has only managed one goal on Blackwood, but it came this season on Dec. 12, 2019.

Ovechkin has a history of success against the Devils. In 56 games against New Jersey, Ovechkin scored in 22 of them. He has 29 total goals including two of his 28 career hat tricks against the Devils.

New Jersey ranks 30th in the NHL in goals against and, although they have improved in that area since Jan. 1, they still rank 21st in that time keeping the puck out of the net.

Add in the fact that the trade deadline firesale has already begun with the Devils shipping out Blake Coleman and captain Andy Greene in the past week, as well as Taylor Hall back in December, and this may be a team not ready to stop Ovechkin's march to history.

With Ovechkin on the verge of 700, there's no doubt that Saturday's marquee matchup (1 p.m., NBC Sports Washington) is one you won't want to miss.

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