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Morning tip: Keys to look for in Wizards-Celtics semifinal series

Morning tip: Keys to look for in Wizards-Celtics semifinal series

ATLANTA -- The long-awaited series between the Wizards and Boston Celtics is here, and it begins Sunday at TD Garden. They don't like each other in the regular season and that animosity is likely to reach new heights in the semifinals.

For the Wizards to upset the No. 1 seed, this is what has to happen:

-- Isaiah Thomas makes them go. During the regular season coach Scott Brooks deployed Kelly Oubre on him and it worked. He's more athletic than the 5-9 guard and has a 7-2 wingspan. The film study for reference.

-- Al Horford isn't a true center. He's a power forward who is undersized against true centers like Marcin Gortat and Ian Mahinmi. It's unclear when Mahinmi will be available after a left calf strain but Brooks told CSNmidatlantic.om early Friday if there was a Game 7 vs. the Hawks, which would've been Sunday, he wouldn't be able to play. Game 1 vs. Boston is Sunday.

-- Avery Bradley is one of the NBA's best defending backcourt players. He's fast, physical and strong on the ball. Bradley Beal will have his work cut out for him just to catch the ball cleanly. Bradley will try to deny him and will be aggressive over screens which means the seams for Beal will be backdoor and selling his moves to the arc and getting into the paint to breakdown the defense. The Celtics don't have true rim protection.

-- The second unit for the Celtics doesn't blow anyone away but Kelly Olynyk, Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier can get hot. They share the ball and allowing them to freely move the ball to step into open looks will make decent players look better than they actually are. 

[RELATED: Wall and Beal can't stop grinning talk about 73-point game]

-- It's hard to imagine that the Celtics will go with Amir Johnson vs. Markieff Morris for any prolonged period of time -- he lasted four minutes before coach Brad Stevens yanked him from one game -- but if that happens that's a major mismatch that has to be manipulated at every turn. 

-- The Celtics can't hide Thomas defensively. John Wall and Beal can and have posted him for easy buckets or force help that opens other teammates for clean looks. If they try to hide him vs. Porter who is 6-8 that's a near 50% three-point shooter. Thomas has to be forced to defend every possession on the court, unlike when the Chicago Bulls let him off the hook in Game 4. They allowed Thomas to be protected by defending the 6-foor-8 Paul Zipser who wasn't involved in any of the action. 

-- Morris did a great job keeping his hands to himself in Game 6 vs. Atlanta. He has to repeat it for the playoffs. Getting cheap reach-ins is the biggest weakness in his game and he has to realize he doesn't have to get a block or steal every possession. Sometimes he has to have restraint and make sure he's available for the fourth quarter. 

-- The Wizards had 17 turnovers, seven by Wall, on Friday. The Celtics' transtion game which features a lot of trail threes is fueled by such givewaways. 

-- Gortat will get the post touches vs. Horford that he didn't get vs. Dwight Howard. The Wizards will go to him to start quarters to get him involved since Horford can't keep him off the low block. Can Gortat hit the shots? If he can, that alone changes the tone of the series because Horford can't bang with him down low for an entire game.

-- Defending the high post action. Horford initates most of it with dribble pitches and handoffs as the Celtics do a lot of split action to confuse the defense with their movement. Horford averaged 5.0 assists in the regular season which led post players. Not allowing him the room or space to do what he wants with the ball is a significant factor. Gortat hasn't always been consistent with ball pressure this far from the rim. That has to change. And the wings have to do their best to blow up the handoffs.

-- Because of their size problem, the Celtics will have issues rebounding. This is where Mahinmi gives the Wizards that second big to give them headaches on the boards but until he returns Gortat, Morris and Jason Smith should be enough. Thomas has no business getting tip-ins like he did in their last regular-season game won by Boston. If that happens, bad sign. 

[RELATED: Things get emotional after Chenier's last game in the booth]

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Reeling Wizards hope to shift momentum in playoff race as they host red-hot Pacers

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Reeling Wizards hope to shift momentum in playoff race as they host red-hot Pacers

The Wizards' playoff hopes just keep taking hits. Washington fell on Friday night in their first game back from the All-Star break, making that eight losses in 11 games. Meanwhile, the eighth-seed Pistons won, pushing the Wizards to four games back from a playoff spot.

With 23 games remaining in their season, the odds are increasingly stacked against the Wizards making the playoffs, a goal they maintain despite the injuries that have plagued them so far. 

Basketball-Reference.com handicaps postseason chances and the Wizards currently hold a higher likelihood of winning the draft lottery (7%) than they did making the playoffs (4.8%). 

If teams maintain their current course for the remainder of the regular season, the threshold to make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference should fall somewhere close to 39 wins. The Pistons are on pace for 38.8 wins as they sit in the final spot.

At 24-35, the Wizards need to go 15-8 from here on out to get to 39. That's a .652 win percentage. Basically, the Wizards would have to play at a 53-win pace for more than a quarter of a season.

For a team that has shown no signs recently of going on an extended run, that seems highly unlikely. For it to happen, they would need a sudden defensive overhaul.

Their offense, even in this 11-game skid, has been fine. During this stretch, they have been third in the NBA in points per game (118.8), second in field goal percentage (49) and eighth in offensive rating (114).

The defense has been an unmitigated disaster. They have surrendered more points than any team (123.4) and the highest field goal percentage (49.5) and three-point percentage (42). 

The Wizards found salary cap relief in their deals before the trade deadline, but didn't add much in the way of a defensive upgrade. 

Jabari Parker is known for his scoring and made headlines earlier this year about how teams don't pay players for defense. Bobby Portis, though a capable rebounder, doesn't block a good deal of shots. 

Looking at their current roster, it's hard to see where the defensive upgrade will come from. Guys like Bradley Beal and Trevor Ariza can't stop teams on their own.

The Wizards did not get off to a good start after the All-Star break with their loss to the Hornets, but will get another chance quickly as they host the Indiana Pacers for a 7 p.m. tip-off on NBC Sports Washington.

The Pacers, who hold the No. 3 seed in the East at the moment, charge in having won seven of their last eight games. Technically, it represents an opportunity for the Wizards to punch back against a playoff team, though they will take a win against anyone at this point.

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Bradley Beal’s outrageous outing vs. Hornets highlights both good and scary for Wizards

Bradley Beal’s outrageous outing vs. Hornets highlights both good and scary for Wizards

All-Star Bradley Beal returned from the break Friday night with an All-NBA performance.

The Wizards still lost 123-110 at Charlotte.

Within those two sentences there's hope and fear for this season and beyond.

Beal destroyed the Hornets for a season-high 46 points. His work over 42 minutes included high-level efficiency – 16 of 25 from the field, sank all 10 of his free throws plus seven assists and one turnover – and powerful moments. 

Beal scored 26 points in the second half, including 10 of Washington’s 23 in the final period. The Hornets knew where to focus their defensive effort. Washington’s leading scorer couldn’t have cared less and turned in arguably his best all-around game of the season.

When viewing a Wizards team going forward this season and especially next year for however long the injured John Wall sits, performances like this from Beal offer hope. Add starter-worthy help this summer, let Beal’s vibe lead the way and perhaps the team isn’t climbing uphill from the start next campaign.

Finding steady assistance now is the dilemma. If the Wizards intend on bringing back many of the current pieces, that dilemma could linger.

The non-Beal’s made only 10 more baskets than Beal and finished 26 of 72 (36.1 percent) from the field. Their collective assist-to-turnover numbers (17-12) explain some unsteady moments, especially during the second quarter when Charlotte rallied after Washington led 38-27. They tried. They just didn’t offer enough as Washington lost for the eighth time in 11 games.

Washington insisted veteran forward and 2019 unrestricted free agent Trevor Ariza remains in its plans beyond this season. That’s understandable based on Ariza’s historically strong two-way play even if his age (33) and possible contract demands (earned $15 million this season) offer potential downside.

The Wizards haven’t received the full-throated version since the trade with the Suns sent Kelly Oubre Jr. and Austin Rivers to Phoenix. Ariza had 10 points on 4 of 13 shooting (2 of 7 from deep) against the Hornets. Usually a viable perimeter threat, Ariza entered Friday shooting 31.9 percent on 3-pointers. Oubre, a consistent clank during his four-year career, is hitting 32.4 percent from beyond the arc. 

Ariza’s addition offers more than just scoring, and some aspects are not easily quantifiable. Some numbers that attempt that feat are not in love. Ariza’s PER (13.1) trails Oubre’s (16). 

Chasson Randle and Wesley Johnson are not Washington’s most curious backup guard tandem this decade. They might be close, however. Other contenders usually played behind Beal and Wall, thus limiting the downside.

Johnson missed all five of his field goal attempts against the Hornets, while Randle played a basic 13 minutes. The Wizards' bench was outscored 38-21.

Head coach Scott Brooks resorted to a big lineup with Beal as the lone guard. This maneuver worked easier with Otto Porter or, at least defensively, Oubre on the court. Neither lives here anymore.

Bobby Portis and Thomas Bryant offer Brooks two energetic interior options. With their size, mobility and shooting range, they seem like a viable pairing. For a team battered on the boards all season, using Bryant and Portis together conceivably boosts Washington’s rebounding chances. 

Brooks skipped using them together much before this game. Their defensive struggles against Charlotte showed why. Washington was outrebounded 53-43 all the same.

This team looks nothing like the one Brooks coached during his first two seasons. Only Beal, Tomas Satoransky and Ian Mahinmi played for the team that came within one game of the 2017 Eastern Conference finals. 

Ideally, Brooks’ patchwork lineup generates needed momentum while a playoff berth remains in reach. Washington (24-35), now a season-worst 11 games under .500, fell four games back of Detroit for the eighth and final playoff berth. 

Conceivably, this core returns next season. Washington opened salary cap space by trading Porter’s hefty contract. Keeping Ariza, Jeff Green, Satoransky, Portis and Bryant eats up much of that space. Growth from 2018 first round pick Troy Brown and the arrival of a player with a 2019 first round selection increases the upside. The hope for a turnaround comes from those that faced Charlotte Friday night.   

The non-Beal’s can do more now. Asking extra from Beal is outrageous, even if the shooting guard suggests that’s possible.

“I wish I could pinpoint on one thing,” Beal told reporters postgame when asked how this team finds a winning path. “But I just have to elevate my play, that’s all I know I can do is elevate my play and my leadership to do whatever it takes.”

That Beal believes more is possible is why he’s a keeper. None of us should doubt him considering the strides made during his second All-Star season. His determined approach is the kind found with contenders.

Even two-time All-Stars need help. Beal’s teammates must provide some quickly to keep hope alive this season as the organization ponders plans for the next one.

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