Nationals

Warriors' turnaround sparked by defense

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Warriors' turnaround sparked by defense

OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) Since Tim Hardaway, Mitch Richmond and Chris Mullin captivated the Bay Area in the ``Run TMC'' days of the early 1990s, the Golden State Warriors have been known for scoring a lot of points and giving up even more.

Not anymore.

In Mark Jackson's second season as coach, the Warriors finally have started to change their focus. Golden State (21-10) is off to its best start in more than 20 years entering Wednesday night's home game against the Los Angeles Clippers (25-7), a surprising turnaround that has been propelled largely by defense.

So much so that the matchup between the Warriors and Clippers - both long-time losers in the Pacific Division - suddenly pits two of the best teams in the Western Conference. The Clippers, who Golden State beat 114-110 in Los Angeles on Nov. 3, had won a franchise-record 17 straight games until losing 92-78 at Denver on Tuesday night.

``It's 2013,'' forward Carl Landry said with a smile after Tuesday afternoon's practice on New Year's Day. ``It's a different time.''

In the bold and boisterous tone of a former broadcaster and Brooklyn native, Jackson declared in downtown San Francisco on the day the Warriors hired him that defensive deficiency would no longer be tolerated. He said he was well aware of the fan fascination with the run-and-fun teams of Don Nelson and Keith Smart, though he promised his style would be different.

``Things gone be a changing,'' Jackson said on June 10, 2011.

The former New York Knicks and Indiana Pacers point guard never really had a chance to implement his system in his rookie year on the sidelines, not with a roster ravaged by injuries and the season shortened to 66 games because of the labor lockout. Over the summer, new Warriors general manager Bob Myers acquired veterans such as Landry and Jarrett Jack along with a trio of rookies - Harrison Barnes, Festus Ezeli and Draymond Green - who have highlighted the kind of heart and hustle Jackson has long preached.

More than a third of the way through the season, the results are starting to show.

The Warriors rank third in the league in rebounding differential (plus-4.19) and fourth in average opponents' field-goal percentage (42.9 percent) per game. They were 28th and 20th, respectively, in those categories while finishing 23-43 last season.

``You can't just wake up and be an elite defensive team. But the more you preach it, the more you hear that message, it shows in how we practice in training camp, how we watch film and study the game,'' said point guard Stephen Curry, who has become a surprising pest on defense. ``All that comes into the process of becoming a better team. We still have more ways we can improve. But we are a hundred times better defensively than we were last year, and that's why our record reflects that. We just have to stick to it.''

Jackson believes players started to embrace his approach once they realized the previous ways didn't translate into wins.

Golden State is 19-2 when outrebounding an opponent, and 6-1 when holding teams below 40 percent shooting this season. Only two teams - Oklahoma City and Sacramento - have shot more than 50 percent against the Warriors, who lost both of those games.

Golden State finished December with a 12-4 record, including a 6-1 road trip highlighted by a win at the defending champion Miami Heat, and won at least 20 games before New Year's Day for the first time since 1980. The Warriors also tied the 1961-62 team - when the franchise was still in Philadelphia - with 12 wins in December.

They are 11-6 on the road, already equaling the amount of wins away from home during last season's shortened schedule. Only San Antonio, with 12 roads wins, has more this season.

Not bad for a franchise that has made the playoffs just once since 1994.

``They witnessed where relying on the offensive end got them,'' Jackson said. ``That's with all due respect. There was some success, but it wasn't success that was able to be sustained. Preaching to them, defensively, if you get it done, people are going to have to deal with you. And not just this year, but for a long time to come.''

Perhaps the most surprising part of the new Warriors' way is that they're doing it with two of the team's best defensive players out with injuries.

Andrew Bogut, expected to be the new franchise center, has played in only four games and is out indefinitely while he recovers from the lingering effects of surgery on his left ankle. Small forward Brandon Rush, who Jackson had called his best perimeter defender, was lost for the season after tearing two ligaments in his left knee the second game of the year.

``I'm extremely proud of this group,'' Jackson said. ``I really believe that bigger things lie ahead than what we just accomplished.''

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Antonio Gonzalez can be reached at: www.twitter.com/agonzalezAP

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Wild-card tracker: Nationals hanging on with one week to go

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Wild-card tracker: Nationals hanging on with one week to go

The calendar is taking numbers with it, stripping the season down day by day, turning what was a tight wild-card race more into a fight for geography.

Washington enters the final week of the regular season with a hefty schedule ahead and its lead for the right to host the Wild-Card Game gone. The Nationals lost, 5-3, in Miami on Sunday because the bullpen blew yet another lead. As much as things have changed since April and May, one has remained constant: the Nationals’ bullpen is the worst in the league and biggest threat to team success. Their wild-card magic number is four in spite of it. 

Meanwhile, Milwaukee hung on for a 4-3 win against Pittsburgh to sweep the Pirates. The Brewers carried a perfect game through six innings. They used three pitchers -- including eventual winner Gio Gonzalez -- to do it. Milwaukee’s blistering pace the last two weeks has pulled it into a virtual tie with Washington. The Nationals are .001 ahead of Milwaukee with a game in hand. The Brewers hold the tiebreaker should it come to that once 162 games are finally complete.

The Cubs are spiraling. St. Louis scored two runs in the top of the ninth then sent Andrew Miller to the mound to finish a four-game sweep of Chicago. The Cardinals won each game by one run, reaffirming how slight the gap between the postseason and disappointment may be. Chicago manager Joe Maddon is in the final year of his contract. Even with the currency from managing the Cubs’ first World Series win since 1918, Maddon’s chances of returning on a fresh deal appear slim. If Chicago misses the playoffs, they become more unlikely, and looking back at four one-run losses to a despised rival becomes an easy spot to start the grousing.

Chicago’s six consecutive losses have turned the wild-card race into a two-team adventure. Increasingly, the main question is where the game will be played as opposed to its participants. The next seven days will determine that.

Here are the postseason chances for each team, according to fivethirtyeight.com:

Nationals, 98 percent

Brewers, 98 percent

Mets, 2 percent

Cubs, 1 percent

Phillies, less than one percent

Monday, Washington opens a final eight-game homestand with Patrick Corbin on the mound and Bryce Harper in the batter’s box. Philadelphia lost Sunday to drop to 79-75. Its wild-card elimination number is a mere two, which provides the Nationals an opportunity for double satisfaction against the offseason’s “stupid money” spenders. Washington could both eliminate and clinch against Philadelphia by the middle of the week. 

The weekend delivers a tussle with Cleveland which could be meaningless or decide everything. An ideal setup would include Washington clinching its spot before the Indians arrive in town. To follow would be the question of how hard it wants to push for homefield. Can Davey Martinez rest his most-relied upon pitchers the final day of the season? Or will it be a desperate day just create another?

Watching Milwaukee will be more important. The Brewers’ magic number is down to three. Their soft schedule continues this week with visits to Cincinnati and Colorado. Sonny Gray opens the series for the Reds. Luis Castillo closes it. So, Washington can take some solace in knowing Cincinnati’s two top pitchers will be deployed against Milwaukee. However, Colorado, 67-89, is Colorado, and the final weekend against subpar competition gives Milwaukee ample chance to play at home Oct. 1. 

One week to go.

Coming up Monday:

Milwaukee off

Chicago off

Philadelphia at Washington, 7:05 p.m. Eflin (9-12, 4.00 ERA) vs. Corbin (13-7, 3.10)

Miami at New York, 7:10 p.m., Smith (9-10, 4.24) vs. Matz (10-9, 4.16)

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Emma Meesseman struggles and 4 other observations from Mystics-Aces Game 3

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Emma Meesseman struggles and 4 other observations from Mystics-Aces Game 3

The Washington Mystics lost to the Las Vegas Aces 92-75 on Sunday evening in Game 3 of the WNBA Semifinals. Here are five observations from the game.

1. There is an argument to be made that the two most talented teams remaining in the WNBA playoffs are facing each other in the Semifinals, that the toughest team the Mystics will see in the postseason are these Las Vegas Aces, even if they end up advancing. Sunday served a reminder of the Aces' top-end talent, as they punched back to avoid a sweep with a Game 3 win, ensuring these teams will play at least one more time.

The Mystics had three opportunities to clinch the series, now they have two. Their next chance will be Tuesday, again in Las Vegas. If Sunday's game was any indication, they will meet a raucous Aces crowd once again at Mandalay Bay.

2. To find where things went wrong for the Mystics, look no further than the second quarter where midway through they got their doors blown off leading into halftime. Washington was up 33-31 with 5:13 left in the second quarter when the Aces closed the frame on a 16-4 run. They outscored the Mystics 24-13 in the quarter overall.

It was ugly. The Mystics couldn't hit a shot and lost control on offense. They had eight turnovers in the quarter and many of them proved costly. They scored only four points in the final seven minutes of the half. Their 37 points at halftime tied a season-low.

The trouble continued in the third, as the Mystics were outdone 32-25. But the momentum shifted in that second quarter and Washington never got it back. After scoring 102 points in Game 2, they topped out at 75 in this one.

3. The Mystics had no answer for the Aces' dynamic duo of Liz Cambage and A'ja Wilson. Cambage put up 28 points with six rebounds, two steals and a block. She shot an impeccable 12-for-15 from the field.

It was the type of performance where if you only saw this game, you would think she was the most dominant player in the WNBA. At 6-foot-9, all the Aces had to do on some plays was throw the ball up the air where only she could get it.

Wilson was a force on both ends of the floor. She had 21 points, eight boards, two blocks and two steals. She made five of her first six shots and finished 8-for-14 overall.

The first quarter saw Cambage, Wilson and Kayla McBride score all of the Aces' points. They went to work thanks to point guard Kelsey Plum's ability to penetrate and set up open shots. Plum had nine points, nine assists and seven rebounds.

Speaking of Plum, people were mad online this week about an NBA writer saying she is the 'James Harden of the WNBA.' Many thought the comparison was unnecessary and also simplistic because they are left-handed guards.

Set aside the outrage and it is simply just a bad take. Harden is known for playing patiently, if slowly, while Plum is the fastest player on the court.

4. The star of this series before Sunday was undoubtedly Emma Meesseman, who was able to score even more points in Game 1 than she did in Game 2, even though she had been moved up the scouting report. In Game 3, she finally went cold, managing only six points on 3-for-8 shooting from the field and 0-for-2 from three.

Though Meesseman had eight points, three assists and two steals, she missed a series of open shots and also didn't have a great game defensively. There were several breakdowns that allowed Cambage open paths to the rim and on a few occasions Meesseman was to blame. 

Meesseman is an X-factor for the Mystics and so far the game results have matched her individual production. When she plays well, it changes everything.

LaToya Sanders, who had 17 points in Game 2, also struggled. She had only four points in 24 minutes. That wouldn't have been a problem if she wasn't taking shots, but she went 2-for-9 from the field as the Aces left her open on several occasions. 

They bet on the fact Sanders isn't usually an offensive threat, especially from the outside, and this time it worked out for them. It would be understandable if Sanders had some extra confidence after what she did in Game 2, but Game 3 was a reminder that her best role is as a defensive specialist.

Meesseman and Sanders' shooting woes contributing to an overall bad night for the Mystics. They shot 38.6 percent collectively. That's not what you expect from the most efficient scoring team in WNBA history.

5. The eight turnovers in the second quarter were an extreme, but giveaways proved a major difference. They had 13 total in this game, far more than the six they had in each of the first two games this series.

The Mystics are the best team in the WNBA at protecting the ball. And so far this series, the Aces have proven quite dangerous in transition when they can push the pace off of missed baskets or miscues. 

Washington will have to clean that up moving forward, especially Ariel Atkins, who had five all by herself. Also, Natasha Cloud had zero turnovers with 14 assists through the first two games, but had three giveaways in this one alone.

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