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Next up: Biggest regular-season game of John Wall's career vs. Cavs

Next up: Biggest regular-season game of John Wall's career vs. Cavs

A little more than a year ago, John Wall and the Wizards were off to a terrible start to the season and the point guard put pressure on himself going into a game with the Cleveland Cavaliers to play well. This year, he's doing it again but for different reasons before Monday's game. 

"I was playing bad last year," said Wall, after a team-high 24 points, game-highs of 13 assists and five steals in Saturday's 105-91 win over the New Orleans Pelicans. "This time we're playing better. That's the best team you have to go get. They're the best team in the East. They've been to two straight (NBA) Finals. They won the championshiop last year so we know what the ultimate goal is. That's what we're trying to strive to get."

Wall had what was then a season-high 35 points and 10 assists in a 97-85 upset to hand Cleveland its first home loss, playing so short-handed that then-Wizards small forward Jared Dudley played center. Today, the Wizards (30-20) have won 17 games in a row at Verizon Center and have the motivation to keep that streak alive. But there's a bigger target on the table for them as the third-place team in the conference. They're just four games out of the No. 1 spot, and it'll be nationally televised to give them the exposure they'd lost with the departure of Paul Pierce in 2015.

Wall is playing the best basketball of his career, closing games in the fourth quarter like he did Saturday with the regularity of a true star. 

The Pelicans sent a lot of attention Bradley Beal's way after he torched them Jan. 29 for 27 points on 11-for-16 shooting. Rather than trapping Wall, which is what most teams do first and foremost, they blitzed Beal. It worked as he only had 12 points and managed to attempt just 12 shots. That opened the floor for Wall, however, who was able to get to the rim and shoot 8-for-19. 

"It's on, for sure," Beal said of Monday's matchup, changing his position after hearing Wall's words on the importance to him. "We're climbing in the rankings. We're going to keep climbing. They're a targeted team with a big red X on their back and we're coming after them, too. We're excited. We're amped up about it. I'm definitely excited because I didn't play the first game."

[RELATED: 5 must-see moments from Wizards' win over Pelicans]

That was Nov. 11 when Washington lost 104-95 in a game they led after the first quarter despite being short-handed. Marcus Thornton, who has been active but hasn't played in 16 games, started for Beal because he had a right hamstring strain that would keep him out three games. No one other than Wall and Markieff Morris had a signfiicant impact. Thornton was 0-for-5. 

Morris shot just 2-for-5 in the first half but keyed the Wizards' surge in the fourth quarter when he had nine points. His three-pointer with 15 seconds left capped the scoring Saturday. He had 18 points and presents a matchup problem at the power forward spot, with his ability to face up bigger, slower players and post up smaller ones. 

A loss to the 2016 champions isn't any sort of death blow even at this point in the season. But it can send the Wizards' confidence to a new level and heights that seemed impossible given their tepid 2-8 start with Wall coming off surgeries to both knees May 5. 

A 15-0 run closed out the Pelicans and the Wizards exited the floor in what had been a hyper-electric atmosphere. Beal was much happier with the turnout than after Thursday's win vs. the L.A. Lakers when he openly complained about feeling like a road game. Because of James, it could be a similar atmosphere. 

"Bring 'em," Beal said. "It's going to be a lot of D.C. fans here, too."

 With a dry wit, Morris added this: "To be a good team you've got to beat good teams. What's better than beating the best team in the East? Or the second-best team."

[RELATED: Wizards lock in defensively to beat Pelicans, preserve streak]

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Which team is closer to contention: the Wizards or Grizzlies?

Which team is closer to contention: the Wizards or Grizzlies?

While watching the Wizards take on another rebuilding team, as they did on Saturday night in their loss to the Memphis Grizzlies, it's only natural to compare the stages of those respective rebuilds and wonder which team is closer. That may be an even more interesting question with a game like Saturday's that matched the Wizards against a team doing things a decidedly different way.

In a sense, the Wizards are where the Grizzlies were last season. Memphis had unexpectedly bottomed out the year before, enough to land Jaren Jackson Jr. in the draft. And, like the Wizards this year, they were holding onto their core veterans, in their case Mike Conley Jr. and Marc Gasol.

But the Grizzlies didn't bounce back into playoff contention like they had hoped and ended up trading both Gasol and Conley, and arguably too late. The Wizards wish to avoid that fate with Bradley Beal and John Wall.

Neither the Wizards (7-17) or Grizzlies (9-17) are a good team right now and both would like to be back in the playoff mix sooner than later, maybe even next year. So, who is closer?

The Grizzlies have the more impressive young core with Jackson and Ja Morant. Both are just 20 years old and they each look like future All-Stars, if not All-NBA talents.

Jackson is averaging 17.6 points and 1.2 blocks while shooting 40 percent from three on six attempts per game. He's a two-way unicorn who can make plays like a guard and has potential to become an elite rim protector.

Morant is the early favorite for rookie of the year, averaging 18.7 points and 6.4 assists while shooting 42.6 percent from long range. He has future star written all over him with a game reminiscent of a young Wall or Russell Westbrook.

The Grizzlies appear to have hit on their high draft picks, but have also nailed later ones, the type of moves that separate the best front offices. Brandon Clarke, the 21st pick this past June, looks like a steal. And Dillon Brooks, a second round pick in 2017, is a solid young player.

But the Wizards also have an emerging young core with Thomas Bryant, Rui Hachimura and Moe Wagner. None of them are as good as Jackson or Morant, but they are good players on the rise. And, most importantly, the Wizards have Beal.

While Jackson and Morant could someday be stars, Beal already is one and he's signed long-term. Potential is a commodity in the NBA, but nothing is guaranteed for young teams and young players. Just look at the Bulls and Hawks this season.

Now, the Grizzlies do have something the Wizards would absolutely love to have and that is real financial flexibility. They have close to $70 million in salary coming off the books this summer and have the second-lowest payroll committed for next season of any team in the NBA, second only to Atlanta.

The Wizards, meanwhile, are strapped with Wall's supermax contract which, depending on how he returns from a torn Achilles, could be an albatross for years to come. Though cap space doesn't mean the Grizzlies will be able to lure free agents, as Memphis has never been mistaken for a prime destination, but it's a preferable spot to be in. Wall's deal may prevent the Wizards from keeping players they would otherwise re-sign, when Memphis should have no such problem.

So, so far we have the Grizzlies with a better young nucleus and a much better salary cap situation. The Wizards, though, have the proven star and may have two if Wall returns to form.

But here's what may give the Wizards the edge, or at least secure a push. The Grizzlies have to give one of their next two first round picks to Boston by way of a 2015 trade. It is top-6 protected this year and unprotected in 2021 if it doesn't convey this June. That could be a major problem for a team trying to build through the draft.

Also, the Wizards are lucky to be in the Eastern Conference. Though the Grizzlies geographically should be in the East, they remain in the West which has been the superior conference basically since Michael Jordan retired from the Bulls.

There is, of course, no definitive answer to the root question of this analysis. The easiest way to settle it would be to say the Grizzlies have a higher ceiling at this point because of Morant and Jackson, but the Wizards probably have the more likely path to the playoffs next season, given they play in the East and have two guys with a track record of getting there.

But as we compare the teams, keep in mind what Memphis wanted to do and what they ended up doing in terms of trading their veteran stars. The Wizards don't want to take their rebuild that far, but sometimes things don't go according to plan. Just ask the Grizzlies.

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Wizards fall flat in battle with young Grizzlies

Wizards fall flat in battle with young Grizzlies

The Washington Wizards lost to the Memphis Grizzlies 128-111 on Saturday night. Here are five takeaways from what went down...

1. It was just over a week ago the Wizards had their best win of the season against the Sixers. Saturday night was one of their worst.

They went into Memphis to play an emerging, but struggling team and got their you-know-whats handed to them. The Wizards jumped out to a 13-6 lead in the first, then lost the momentum and never got it back.

By halftime the Wizards were down 15. That deficit grew to 24 in the second half.

The Wizards ended up losing by 17, but it wasn't as close as the score would suggest. It was Washington's seventh loss in eight games.

Maybe it was the three-day layoff. Perhaps they weren't sharp. Whatever the reason, that was a bad one.

2. As this game went on, it became very obvious that Memphis' gameplan was to make sure Davis Bertans didn't beat them. They swarmed the Latvian Laser on the perimeter and guarded him well beyond the three-point line.

Bertans was held to nine points on 2-for-9 shooting and 1-for-6 from three. His one three was a quick release shot from about 27 feet out. Soon after that, the defense was picking him up at halfcourt.

 

This type of treatment was inevitable for Bertans, who has been the biggest surprise of the Wizards' season so far. He has turned into one of the league's best three-point shooters and the second-best scorer on the team. Teams now know it.

3. Rui Hachimura's college teammate stole the show in this one. Brandon Clarke, who played last year with Hachimura at Gonzaga, put on an impressive scoring display highlighted by a series of vicious dunks. He measured a max vertical of 40 1/2 inches and used every inch of it to dunk all over the Wizards.

He had 19 points in the first half, including an alley-oop where his head was level with the rim and a poster dunk on the fastbreak that nearly ended Ian Mahinmi's career.

 

Clarke had 25 points on 11-for-14 shooting with four rebounds. Coming out of the draft, he was considered a good defensive player but too old (he's 23) and too raw offensively without a three-point shot.

So far, he's looking like a major steal at the 21st overall pick. 

4. The Grizzlies might not be good, but they are fun to watch and have a nice young core with Clarke alongside Jaren Jackson Jr. and Morant. Jackson is a unicorn at 6-foot-11 with the ability to drive coast-to-coast and hit threes. Morant is a force of nature, able to play well above the rim despite being 6-foot-3.

Morant nearly pulled off one of the most disrespectful plays in basketball on Bradley Beal. He tried to pull a "Michael Jordan on Ron Mercer" by snatching the ball off the glass with two hands. But he clipped the rim and was called for goaltending. Still, it was impressive because of how high he got in the air.

Memphis has an exciting young team. They might contend for a playoff spot next year with a good offseason. If they were in the East, they could really make some noise.

5. The Wizards were without several key regulars once again. Isaiah Thomas missed his fifth straight game with a left calf strain and Moe Wagner was out with his left ankle sprain after playing in the past four games.

They did get back Garrison Mathews, though. The two-way guard played in his first game since Oct. 25 after sitting out due to a stress reaction in his right leg. It was Mathews' third professional game, but he made his first shot - a corner three. It happened to come in his home state of Tennessee. 

Mathews might actually get some minutes in the next few weeks because he is the second-best shooting guard on the roster with Jordan McRae out due to a finger injury.

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