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Morning tip: Wizards reach midway point of season on a high note

Morning tip: Wizards reach midway point of season on a high note

The halfway point for the Wizards isn't the All-Star break which comes before the Feb. 19 game in New Orleans. It's now, following Wednesday's 104-101 win against the Memphis Grizzlies to put them three games over .500.

After playing out of a hole under first-year coach Scott Brooks, they're 22-19 through 41 games. John Wall and Bradley Beal are playing at an All-Star level. Otto Porter is having a career season and will be a candidate for the league's Most Improved Player, Marcin Gortat is a rebounding machine who is having his best season since arriving in Washington in 2013 and Markieff Morris has put together his best stretch of play since arriving in a trade almost a year ago.

It’s time to look at the highlights and lowlights:

Starting 5: Beal and Wall are averaging career-highs -- and set career high points for a game (Wall, 52; Beal, 42) -- and the offense is potent. They've gone away from high pick-and-rolls to initate the offense which has added more diversity and made both more difficult to cover. It hasn't negatively impacted the numbers of the role players. In fact, it's involved them more. They are a major reason why the team is averaging 108.6 points per 100 possessions, their highest since 2007-08. 

The bench: A lot of the early-season losses can be parked at the feet of no production from the reserves, who have struggled because of point guard play (Trey Burke, Tomas Satoransky), rim protection (Ian Mahinmi) and defensive inefficiencies (Andrew Nicholson, Marcus Thornton). That has put a heavy burden on the starters to play more minutes than what's ideal, but Burke has shown signs of being effective in spots and Satoransky has rebounded after confidence issues with his shot. Mahinmi has been a non-factor due to injury, but Jason Smith's play has been remarkable at both ends. Kelly Oubre has had his spots, too, though not as consistently as Smith. Thornton is completely out of the rotation. 

[RELATED: Coach Brooks, Wizards take stock at midpoint of season]

The rookies: Sheldon McClellan has been in and out of the rotation. With every one step forward (see wins over Minnesota Timberwolves and Milwaukee Bucks) he takes two steps back (see next game vs. Chicago Bulls). He made key reads and passes that led to big shots in the first two, getting his points off hustle plays and in transtion, only to muck it up with bad decision-making on defense against the Bulls. Still, McClellan is a better option than Thornton and likely will get more looks but Satoransky is monopolizing the time now. Daniel Ochefu would've already played in the D-League if it weren't for Mahinmi's injury. They need the big body, but the Wizards like Ochefu and feel he's worth developing. Danuel House (right wrist) still is in a brace but should be out of it soon.

Best win: Dec. 18 vs. L.A. Clippers. Beal came one point shy of tying his career-high with 41 points, Wall had a double-double and Morris put up 23 points and nine rebounds in a fierce fourth-quarter comeback against an elite team. And they were short-handed with Kelly Oubre out because of a concussion. 

Worst loss: Dec. 6 vs. Orlando Magic. Wall set a career-high with 52 points and it still wasn't enough to beat a team that has trouble scoring. But because of bad all-around defense, Orlando had seven players in double figures led by Elfrid Payton's career-high 25. And it occured at Verizon Center. That edges out the Dec. 23 road loss to the Milwaukee Bucks who scored 73 in the first half and won by 27. 

Biggest surprise: Smith. The way he began the season, looking confused and frequently fumbling the ball in offensive sets, didn't give cause for optimism. But he's not just playing well offensively by knocking down the mid-range jumper and occasional three but rotating properly on defense to serve as a rim protector. High-flying dunker Zach LaVine found that out when Smith challenged him running full speed at the rim. Smith won out. 

Biggest hurdle: Bench scoring on the road. The Wizards are 4-13. Reserves, by definition, don't play as well away from home. That's why they come off the bench. Burke shoots 53.6% from three at home. That dips to 25% on the road.

Projected record at All-Star break: 30-25.

[RELATED: CMills asks why Wall, Beal don't get more national attention]

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Five observations from Wizards' 125-124 overtime win over the Blazers, including Markieff Morris' career night

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USA Today Sports

Five observations from Wizards' 125-124 overtime win over the Blazers, including Markieff Morris' career night

The Washington Wizards beat the Portland Trail Blazers 125-124 in overtime on Monday night. Here are five observations from the game...

Wild game, huge win: Though it was just the third game of the regular season, it felt like the Wizards needed this one. They had just lost their first two games to teams missing key players and battling through the second nights of back-to-backs. And up next is the defending-champion Warriors.

Lose this one and the Wizards could have put themselves in a very tough early season hole, but they rallied to overcome a sluggish offensive start to the second half to secure their first victory of the season.

Considering the alternative, this was about as important a win could be this early in the year.

Oubre showed some life: The shots finally started falling for Kelly Oubre Jr. After shooting just 5-for-16 from the field and 1-for-7 for three in his first two games, Oubre broke out with 22 points on 9-for-13 shooting and 3-for-3 from three in this one. He also added six rebounds, a steal and a block.

To his credit, Oubre didn't force anything out of frustration after the way he started the season. He began the night by calmly knocking down a three from the slot, then attacking the rim for a shot off the glass a play later. Oubre was aggressive getting into the lane and scored with both hands.

This was, quite easily, Oubre's best performance so far in 2018-19, including the preseason. He was active deflecting the ball on defense and played controlled, intelligent basketball on offense. 

There were many plays he made that won't show up in the box score that helped lead the Wizards to their win; deflections, a huge charge taken in the final minutes of overtime. He was absolutely locked in.

Now, there were some lowlights. Oubre let several players get by him too easily, including Evan Turner and Jake Layman. Oubre has the tools to stay in front of those guys. But all in all, Oubre made a big difference in this game and that was good to see.

Morris balled out: While Oubre had his best game in the past few weeks, Markieff Morris may have had his best performance in a Wizards uniform. The Wizards forward exploded for 28 points in 25 minutes with nine rebounds, a block and a steal. He set a career-high with six threes made on 10 attempts.

Two of Morris' threes came in overtime, including one with 38.5 seconds left to put the Wizards up by four. His role in closing out the win in Portland brought back memories of his game-winner in the same building in March of 2017.

Morris is one of the biggest wild cards on the Wizards because it's not always clear which version of him they are going to get. When he's at his best, he's hitting outside shots and playing physical defense. He did that and more on Monday night.

With Dwight Howard out, the Wizards need Morris to step up. Though he didn't exactly do that in their first two games, Morris came to play in this one.

Beal went off early: This game was billed as the return of Bradley Beal to the Moda Center where he dropped a career-high 51 points last December. It took him a bit to get going, but once he did, Beal caught fire and scored at a pace that for a while was reminiscent of that amazing night.

Beal had 19 points in the first half on 8-for-12 from the field and 3-for-4 from three. But then he cooled off a bit in the second half and finished with 25 points, eight rebounds, seven assists and one block. He had zero turnovers.

Beal has now scored at least 25 points in five straight games against the Blazers. Clearly, he likes playing in Portland but one reason for his success against them may deal with C.J. McCollum. 

Beyond the fact facing one of the best shooting guards in the NBA may bring the best out of him, Beal is a tough cover for McCollum because he's more athletic. He's a tick faster and can get higher on his jumpshot. 

McCollum is an underrated defender, but Beal kept him off balance with well-timed pump fakes and consistently got open off screens. Beal's points were mostly within the rhythm of the offense. He was moving consistently without the ball and using the smallest of separation to get his shots off.

Beal also deserves credit for his defense against McCollum. The Blazers star was limited to 13 points on 5-for-25 from the field and 1-for-9 from three. 

Damian Lillard also had a rough shooting night. He had 29 points, but on 7-for-21 from the field and 2-for-10 from three. Many of his points came at the free throw line where he went 13-for-15, 13 of his attempts in the first half.

Two centers are now hurt: The day began with head coach Scott Brooks sharing some bad news about Howard, who not only did not make the trip with the Wizards but is likely to miss at least several more games. Not too long into this game, they lost their backup center, too.

Ian Mahinmi was subbed out after getting two quick fouls and never returned. He went to the locker room to get treated with back spasms, leaving the Wizards perilously thin at the center position. They had to rely on Jason Smith and using forwards Markieff Morris and Jeff Green in small-ball lineups. Thomas Bryant still didn't get the nod.

Back spasms do not sound serious, but any time Mahinmi is unavailable puts a strain on the Wizards. It brings into focus the fact the Wizards have not one, but two roster spots currently vacant. 

 

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Wizards vs Blazers featured Moe Harkless' impressive Chappelle Show themed Halloween costume

Wizards vs Blazers featured Moe Harkless' impressive Chappelle Show themed Halloween costume

The Portland Trail Blazers are setting the bar high for NBA Halloween. 

Maurice Harkless made his arrival in style turning a corner dressed as Tyrone Biggums from the American sketch comedy television series "Chapelle's Show." 

But it got better. Bosnia native and seven-footer Jusuf Nurkic turned the corner as Beast from Walt Disney's classic romance film Beauty and the Beast. 

The bar has been set. 

Washington looks for its first win tonight after falling to 0-2 right out of the gate, while Portland aims for a 3-0 start after defeating the Spurs 121-108 Saturday night. 

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