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Morning tip: Leonsis lauds Grunfeld for following game plan

Morning tip: Leonsis lauds Grunfeld for following game plan

That Ernie Grunfeld would remain as president of the Wizards after a failed season outside of the playoffs was shocking to many, but it shouldn't have been. For the last two months, including what had been reported at CSNmidatlantic.com, barring an 11th-hour change of heart majority owner Ted Leonsis wasn't making any changes. He always had a contract. Wednesday, Leonsis made his position official with the decision-making process that led to the firing of Randy Wittman as coach, hiring Scott Brooks to replace him and keeping Grunfeld on board. 

The only person's approval that Grunfeld needed was that of Leonsis who is more than satisifed over what he called a five-year plan to build the Wizards into a perennial playoff team that can eventually compete for a spot in the NBA Finals.

"Not really because we were executing to the plan," said Leonsis when asked if he considered making changes in the front office. "If we had varied from the plan and the plan didn’t work then I think I would’ve been within my realm of my responsibility to take a look. We were executing a plan we agreed to when I bought the team five years ago."

The result was Grunfeld heading up the coaching search that didn't take long when they settled on Brooks. It was a 10-hour meeting in Newport Beach, Calif., where Brooks lives, to hammer out the details last week.

Leonsis, who had a minority stake previously, became majority owner of the franchise in 2010. He only cares about what has taken place with Grunfeld since his ascension. The Wizards won 23 games in 2010-11 and still had malcontents such as Gilbert Arenas, Andray Blatche, JaVale McGee and Nick Young. That was Phase I, aka Deconstruction.

Unlike what happened when Leonsis cleaned house with his other franchise's coach and GM a year ago, the NHL's Capitals, Grunfeld followed orders perfectly and has made it all work. 

"The one thing that I will say from a leadership standpoint is we articulated a plan in the NHL with the Caps. The only times we deviated from the plan and it didn’t work that’s when I felt management was at risk," Leonsis said. "We said we wanted to be young, we wanted to have depth and we wanted balance and we wouldn’t trade young for old. On a few occasions when we traded young for old or rental players and it didn’t work that ended up being a setback for us. We really looked at that."

Grunfeld pulled off a crafty move for Markieff Morris at the trade deadline in Leonsis' view. The Wizards essentially traded a first-round pick to the Phoenix Suns that will be 13th overall for a starting power forward with stretch capability who is 26 and under contract for just $8 million per through 2019. The likelihood of a college player who is no older than 20 being as good or with as high of a ceiling isn't good. The likelihood of getting a player of Morris' quality in free agency this summer at that pricetag? Impossible. And the deal with the Suns that brought in Marcin Gortat before the 2013-14 season for a pick that turned out to be Tyler Ennis worked in Grunfeld's favor, too.

The trade that shipped aged and slowed Andre Miller to the Sacramento Kings for Ramon Sessions as a backup point guard also held to that principle and worked.

"The big decision on this one was the trade we made this year when we traded a pick for Morris. I looked at that one really hard. Was that one on strategy or off strategy? Who did we get for Gortat. Would I trade Gortat for Ennis? The answer is yes," Leonsis said. "It’s interesting in the exit interviews how the team really liked, admired, wanted to play with Morris."

Grunfeld met his benchmarks by fulfilling Leonsis' playoffs-or-else demand in 2013-14 with a 44-win season and a 46-win season after that for their second consecutive appearance in the East semifinals. 

This season was a disaster by those standards, a 41-41 record and no playoff berth that led to Wittman's firing. Still, they're not overextended financially, are major players in the free-agent market and have a nucleus of John Wall, Bradley Beal, Morris, Otto Porter, Marcin Gortat and Kelly Oubre. As many as nine roster spots will come open when free agency hits July 1. 

Gortat filled a void that was created when Emeka Okafor ended up with a neck injury that effectively ended his career just before the regular season began. The Wizards had to move quickly and didn't have a lot of wiggle room. With Morris' acquistion on top, they're set up long-term.

"We used that pick but it wasn’t for a player at the end of this career. He still has that upside. We continue to execute on the plan," Leonsis said. "When you can take a step back and say, ‘Is the plan right?’ That’s the big question you have to ask. With the Caps what I learned was the plan was right. It’s when we deviated from the plan we got off bounds. …We’ve stayed on their plan. If they’d gone off that plan we’d probably be having a different discussion right now."

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Aces' Liz Cambage tells Mystics forwards to 'get in the weight room or get out of the post'

Aces' Liz Cambage tells Mystics forwards to 'get in the weight room or get out of the post'

One of the WNBA’s most dominant players is Liz Cambage of the Las Vegas Aces. She’s unforgiving, wears her heart on her chest, and is truly one of a kind.

When the center is playing her finest basketball no one in the league can stop her. Sunday's Game 3 of the WNBA Semifinals against the Washington Mystics had Cambage playing at her finest. 

Matching her season-high, Cambage waltzed to 28 points in only 27 minutes of playing time. Several Mystics took their turn at trying to slow her down. Every Mystic had a chance to help at least at double-teaming the Ace's leading scorer. Primarily it was Emma Meesseman and LaToya Sanders that drew the assignment responsibility, but everyone had a role.

It did not matter in Las Vegas. Throughout the whole contest, Cambage rolled over the interior of the Mystics defense. She scored at ease as the tallest player on either roster for the Mystics and the Aces. 

The Australian knew she could not be stopped. Postgame she analyzed why she was able to command the post so well on ESPN2’s broadcast. In the process, she put several Mystics on blast. 

“They got small forwards guarding me. If they can’t handle it, get in the weight room or get out of the post. That’s what I’m doing. I’m doing my thing inside,” Cambage told Kim Adams.

She’s talking about the 6-4 Meesseman, the 6-3 Sanders. But it doesn't matter whomever the Mystics put on the 6-8 Cambage, there will be a significant matchup advantage for the Aces. 

Not only does she have a clear edge in her height, but she does her build as well. Cambage possesses the ideal structure of a WNBA center. She stands at 216 pounds, 30 pounds more than either of the Mystics primary defenders on her. Sanders’ lanky frame has its advantages in the Mystics run-and-gun offense, but not what you see from a stereotypical center. Meesseman is a better matchup defensively, size-wise but she spots Cambage five inches. 

This is not an oddity though for Washington. There are a minute few in the WNBA that can walk alongside Cambage. As the third-tallest player in the league, only the Phoenix Mercury’s Brittany Griner (6-9) and the New York Liberty’s Han Xu (6-9) position higher.

Despite the clear physical dominance, Cambage is erratic at times. While she wears her emotions, those also tend to get her in trouble with her aggressive play and in dealing with officials. When frustrated, sometimes she struggles to even get a shot on rim.  

This is partly why Cambage’s play was highlighted so much in Game 3. The first two games of the series had Cambage as her own worst enemy. Visibly she was upset with some calls and non-calls by the officials. Timely fouls also limited her flow on the court. 

Neither was the case in Game 3. Fouls went her way. She even got away with a brash elbow to Meesseman’s face why trying to keep the lane clear. The non-call resulted in Mike Thibault losing his cool and getting a technical foul.

It’s also not the first time that Cambage has flailed an elbow to Meesseman. Game 2 saw her earn a technical foul for that same behavior. 

Either way, Cambage is a matchup nightmare against the Mystics. During the regular season, the Mystics – led by Sanders’ defense – kept Cambage to under 15 points in all three of their matchups. In three games in this series, the 28-year-old has 19, 23 and 28 points; progressively getting better in each game. 

Washington still holds a 2-1 lead and is a game away from returning to the WNBA Finals. However, they have to find an answer to slow down the tenacious Cambage. 

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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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