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Vikings making creative, consistent use of Harvin

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Vikings making creative, consistent use of Harvin

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. (AP) Percy Harvin's versatility, athleticism and toughness have made defending him difficult for Minnesota's opponents.

Figuring out the most effective way to use - and protect - him has been a challenge for the Vikings, too. The experiment was so uneven last year - while the team finished 3-13 - that Harvin demanded better from the coaching staff, seeking clarity on his role.

For the first time this week, the fourth-year do-it-all wide receiver elaborated a little on why he was so frustrated during the offseason. His out-of-nowhere rant on the first day of minicamp about unspecified issues with the organization that made him unhappy was followed by a request for a trade.

The situation simmered down over the next month, though, and Harvin never spoke another word of discontent. He showed up in prime shape at the start of training camp and got in a groove he's stayed in through the first quarter of the season. Harvin leads the NFL with 698 combined net yards, including kickoff returning, rushing and receiving.

``It was just the identity of our offense,'' Harvin said, when asked again about the nature of his complaint with the team. ``Just not only me, just guys knowing exactly what the coaches are asking of them on a week-to-week basis. Not playing one position one week, and come in and not totally having a grasp on what they're asking for the next week.''

Offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave is the man in charge of sorting all this out. Harvin went out of his way to compliment Musgrave for his work in creating packages of formations and plays to feature Harvin, tight end Kyle Rudolph and wide receiver Jerome Simpson as the key complements to the Adrian Peterson-centered system.

``Everybody, I think, knows their role, knows what the coaches expect them to do. Now you can just sit back and try to do it at the highest level you can,'' said Harvin, who is third in the league with 30 catches.

Whatever conflict existed between Harvin and Musgrave, then, has vanished amid the team's 3-1 start.

``The communication has been really, really good both during the season, training camp and offseason, so we want to keep it going if we can,'' Musgrave said.

The Vikings used Harvin a lot as a tailback last year to keep Peterson from being overexposed. He played his usual spot in the slot, catching balls across the middle, screen passes to the sides and wherever else he could get open, the one reliable receiver quarterback Christian Ponder had. But because of his punishing running style and his history of migraine headaches, the Vikings kept a strict lid on the number of snaps he was on the field. Seeing Harvin on the sideline for a key third-down play inside the 20-yard line was not unusual, and despite his take-it-all-the-way ability as a kickoff returner his opportunities there were limited too.

This year, though, has been different. Harvin played 76 percent of the offensive snaps in last week's win at Detroit, and he was deep for all three kickoffs by the Lions. The first one he ran back 105 yards for a touchdown to start the game.

Coach Leslie Frazier recalled conversations with other coaches around the league during Senior Bowl practices last January that reminding him how tough defending Harvin can be. So he made a focus of maximizing that with Musgrave.

``We made a point to keep him on the field and use him in a variety of ways. To Percy's credit, he was excited about that and he's embraced that role,'' Frazier said, adding: ``We move him around to try to make it hard on defenses to find where he is.''

With the Lions putting an extra defender on or near him on almost every route he ran, Harvin was held to three receptions for 22 yards. But that helped open more room for Peterson, who posted his first 100-yard game of the season.

``They know that we're trying to get the ball to Percy and they're going to try to take those gimmicky plays away and that's fine,'' Ponder said. ``We'll find ways to get him the ball other ways. ... We're brighter on this side of the ball anyway.''

Harvin makes it easier to look smart.

``I feel like I'm a game-changer. Every time I get the ball in my hands I try to make a play,'' he said.

NOTES: LB Erin Henderson finished a full practice for the first time since his concussion in the Sept. 16 game at Indianapolis. Frazier said he's ``optimistic'' about Henderson playing this Sunday against Tennessee. But Jasper Brinkley will remain in Henderson's previous role in the middle of the nickel defense. Marvin Mitchell, who replaced Henderson at the weak side spot in the base scheme, strained his calf during special teams drills and was sent for an MRI exam. ... DE Jared Allen was held out of practice again to rest his groin, but Frazier said he doesn't expect Allen to miss the game. ... Ponder has a minor injury to his right knee, but the Vikings don't expect it to be a problem. ... Harvin was named the NFC's Special Teams Player of the Month for September, the first time in Vikings history a returner has won the award. Punter Chris Kluwe took it in September 2005.

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LeBron James had his worst-ever game against the Wizards in Lakers' loss

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LeBron James had his worst-ever game against the Wizards in Lakers' loss

No Wizards fan needs to be reminded of the torment their favorite team has suffered at the hands of LeBron James for the last decade-and-a-half. He has eliminated them from the playoffs three times, scored 57 in their building and hit a variety of game-winning shots.

So, it should be considered no small feat what the Wizards did on Sunday night in their 128-110 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers. They held James, arguably the league's best player, to only 13 points. That's his lowest scoring total ever against the Wizards franchise.

James has played the Wizards 65 times over the years, between the regular season and the playoffs. His previous career low vs. the Wizards was 14, back on Feb. 7 of 2004, when he was a rookie.

While in the Eastern Conference for his first 15 NBA seasons, James played the Wizards four times a year and often had the upper-hand. In his career, even with Sunday's loss, he is 30-19 against them with a 26.9 points per game average.

Usually, James powers his way to the rim against the Wizards and scores at will. Not on Sunday night.

"I have no clue," head coach Scott Brooks said when asked for the secret to shutting him down.

"It seems like every night it's 40 points here. He makes shots. Last year, here I think he averaged [39.9 points, 11.0 assists and 10.0 rebounds]. He's a pretty good player."

James shot just 5-for-16 from the field on Sunday, good for 31.3 percent. He was 0-for-2 from three and had four turnovers with only three assists. He was a -21 in the box score.

Some of James' struggles could be attributed to fatigue, as the Lakers played the night before in Charlotte. And James did have an off-night with some missed shots he would otherwise make.

But the Wizards had a plan and it worked. They deployed Jeff Green to guard him in isolation. Green is not only the Wizards' best match from a physical standpoint, he knows James well having played with him last season with the Cavaliers.

Green did an excellent job matching James' physical style without fouling. He had only one foul on the night despite playing bump-and-run coverage on many of James' drives to the basket.

Green and the Wizards also took away his three-point looks by closing early and making him pass to teammates. James' two three-point attempts were a season-low.

"Give a lot of credit to Jeff. Jeff did a great job," guard John Wall said. "It was one game. We know he is how he is. Just gotta tip your hat for us, making him make tough shots and make plays tonight."

The Wizards wanted others to beat them from long range and James' teammates didn't come through. While James didn't get off many threes, other Lakers did. They just didn't hit them.

Josh Hart went 0-for-5 from long range. Lonzo Ball went 2-for-7 and Kyle Kuzma went 0-for-4. 

“I think we did a good job of making it difficult on [James], showing him a lot of bodies, active hands," guard Bradley Beal said.

With James in check, the Wizards took advantage. They forced 22 total turnovers and that allowed Wall to feast in transition. He scored a season-high 40 points and dished 14 assists.

For one night, the Wizards had James' number. After 16 years of domination, it was about time.

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Sam Dekker stands out for Wizards without cutting corners

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USA TODAY SPORTS

Sam Dekker stands out for Wizards without cutting corners

CAPITAL ONE ARENA -- Scott Brooks doesn’t know much about Sam Dekker. Four games since the Wizards acquired the energy forward as part of a successful three-team deal, it’s clear the head coach is enjoying the homework.

John Wall’s passionate work from the start against the Los Angeles Lakers helped snap the Wizards’ four-game losing streak, but Dekker’s X-factor performance also stood out in Washington’s rousing 128-110 win Sunday night.

Sunday marked the Wizards’ first game since the weekend’s chaotic trade sequence that will ultimately bring Trevor Ariza back to Washington. The deal doesn’t become approved by the league until Monday. With Otto Porter (right knee contusion) sidelined, Washington took the court shorthanded at positions where players would contend with LeBron James. Markieff Morris exited after a knock to the chin resulted in a stinger.

Brooks admitted pregame he loved the undermanned challenge. Dekker’s constant and perceptive movement helped Washington play at needed levels without cutting corners.

“Sam is a great cutter. That is what I am finding out,” Brooks said. “I didn't really know everything about his game, I still don't.”

Brooks isn’t alone in learning about the fourth-year player. Dekker received regular rotation work the previous two seasons with the Rockets and Clippers, but his NBA career has yet to blast off.

An ankle injury kept him off the court in Cleveland earlier this campaign until the Dec. 7 trade involving Jason Smith landed him in Washington.

The general scouting report played out in real life against the Lakers. High motor player. Athletic 6-foot-9 forward. Scattered shooting from distance.

The two positive traits showed in the open court and on the move. Dekker repeatedly found space when Wall or Tomas Satoransky ran the offense. They frequently found him for dunks and layups. Dekker finished 10 of 15 from the field.

“Whenever I have the ball or attack, penetrate, he’s a great cutter,” said Wall, who finished with a season-high 40 points and 14 assists. “We were just talking about it. He said ‘Whenever you have the opportunity to be aggressive, I’m always a guy that’s cutting and doing the little things. I don’t mind doing the dirty work.’”

The Wizards (12-18) need more grit in their world considering their underachieving start to the season. That’s something Dekker believes he can provide. Considering he doesn’t have full grasp of the team’s playbook terminology, falling on the back of basketball basics is necessary for now.

“They called out a couple of plays tonight and I looked at John, looked at Brad (Beal) and I’m like where (do I go), Dekker said spastically. “(They) would just say go to the corner. OK. That part of it is tough.

“One thing you can control is how hard you play and how smart you play. When you put yourself in a position to do some good things, and help the team. That’s really all I’m trying to do right now.”

Going forward Dekker will try finding a spot in Washington’s rotation. Ariza, who was Dekker’s basketball tutor when the two played in Houston during the 2016-17 season, likely moves into the starting lineup.

Reserve minutes opened when Washington traded Kelly Oubre Jr. and Austin Rivers to Phoenix for Ariza.  The basics of Dekker’s game compares to the popular Oubre, but with perhaps a steadier baseline.

He has yet to run the court with complete ease. Dekker remains on a minute’s restriction because of the ankle injury. “I was able to do some things tonight that I haven’t been able to in the past couple of games. That was a positive,” he said.

There’s no guarantees for minutes or the 24-year-old being part of Washington’s future. Dekker is one of several restricted free agents on the roster. For now the goal is simple: Play and play hard.

“I’m just trying to prove myself every night. I’m trying to show coach I’m a guy that can help this team,” Dekker said. “I’ve helped teams in the past, but I really want to be part of a playoff run here.”

Color Brooks impressed, with one clear clanking exception.

“I'm assuming that he is going to be able to shoot threes better than he did,” Brooks said after watching Dekker air ball a 3-point attempt and wildly miss on another. “But he cuts to the basket, he moves the ball, he plays hard, he brings energy, he plays with the proper respect for the game. That is what I love about him, he always seems to be prepared. He doesn't have to turn the switch on, it's on.” 

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