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Price making strong starting case

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Price making strong starting case

Even with only two games remaining in the preseason, Randy Wittman isn't ready to declare a starting lineup for the Wizards' regular season opener.

Still, considering A.J. Price's floor generalship over the previous two games, it's becoming hard to imagine the free agent pickup not on the court for the opening jump ball when the Wizards play at Cleveland on October 30.

With Price directing traffic for the first unit, Washington (2-4) topped 100 points in each of their last two contests including Saturday's 102-94 win in Milwaukee. The rising fourth-year guard tallied 17 points and 11 assists against the Bucks, knocking down 6 of 9 shots including 3 of 4 from beyond the 3-point arc.

"I feel good, confidence is growing each game - more as a unit than me personally," Price said following the team's Sunday afternoon practice at the Verizon Center. "We're gaining confidence the more we play with each other, the more we get to know each other. It feels good to get out there and put a performance together where you play well and finish up with the win."

The starter for the opening two games of the preseason then a reserve in games three and four, Price has 25 points and 19 assists with only three turnovers over the last two games.

"Probably his two best performances these last two games," Wittman said about Price, who is receiving his first taste of the Wizards attack after spending the first three years of his career with Indiana

"He kind of solidified running the offense, getting guys in spots. The flow of the game, the pace of the game has been good, his decision-making, good, obviously, when you go for 17 and 11 with low turnovers. "

Signed during the offseason for reserve depth, Price has been battling Shelvin Mack and Jannero Pargo for minutes - potentially lots of them. Washington expects the injured John Wall to miss the first month of the season. None of the three has Wall's talent and athleticism, but Price is proving to be a viable alternative.

"He's a big part of this team," said forward Trevor Booker, who joined Price in the starting lineup against Milwaukee and scored a team-high 22 points. "With John hurt, he's going to have to step in and do big things for us. He showed he can do that last night."

In Milwaukee, Price and company faced the Bucks high-scoring backcourt of Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings. The pair combined for 35 points, but Washington's guards harassed the duo into missing 19 of 31 shots from the field and committing 10 turnovers.

"From a defensive standpoint, those are two hard covers in our league, Ellis and Jennings. I thought (Price) battled those guys good," Wittman said.

Mack finished with four points and one assist in 20 minutes against the Bucks. Pargo did not play for the first time in five games.

Searching for the optimum combinations, Wittman plans on more mixing and matching over the final two preseason games, Wednesday against the Miami Heat in Kansas City and at San Antonio on Friday. Taking into account the chemistry exhibited by the opening unit of Price, Booker, Emeka Okafor, Trevor Ariza and Bradley Beal against Milwaukee, expect this group together in some way against the Heat. That's fine with Price.

"More continuity comes when we play more, the more minutes we play together," Price said. "This is our (sixth) game now; I think we have a feel for each other between those games, the practices, gaining more of a confidence in each other, learning what guys want to do. [Saturday] night, those guys I first came out with, I pretty much know what those guys want to do offensively and defensively. As a unit, we looked pretty good."

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Wizards try maintaining focus yet cannot shake inconsistencies

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USA Today Sports

Wizards try maintaining focus yet cannot shake inconsistencies

 

CAPITAL ONE ARENA -- The Washington Wizards were finally feeling better after that 2-9 start to the regular season. Three wins in a row with three games remaining on the homestand starting with the Brooklyn Nets Friday night. They didn’t conquer all of their problems. But at least they could breathe a bit easier, smile more natural. Heck, they were only 1 ½ games out of the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference and three back of third place.

“And we’ve been playing terrible," John Wall said to NBC Sports Washington Thursday night at the point guard’s annual turkey giveaway.  “That’s how shaky it is. You never know how it’s going to go, but we can’t look at that aspect. ... Have to take it one game at a time. Our focus is on Brooklyn right now. Try to win to make it four in a row.”

Last season Brooklyn was one of those non-contending teams that flummoxed the Wizards. Brooklyn finished 28-54, yet won two of three over Washington. While the current momentum was compelling, the reporter told Wall he’s heard such focus talk before and witnessed mixed results. The point guard nodded in acknowledgment.

“You put yourself in that situation, you have to answer (questions) and [reporters] have to ask," Wall said.

Another batch of questions came at Wall and the Wizards Friday. Brooklyn, a try-hard squad lacking high-end talent, dumped Washington 115-104.

The Nets, who lost leading scorer Caris Levert to a nasty ankle injury this week, turned a 56-54 halftime lead into a 19-point margin in the fourth quarter. They also converted 13 Washington turnovers into 19 points.

The Wizards, now 5-10, finished 3 of 17 on 3-pointers. Their defense lacked oomph at the point of attack.

“They were more aggressive than we were, offense and defense,” Bradley Beal said. “They forced us to turn the ball over. We couldn’t make shots [and] we definitely couldn’t guard them. Our one-on-one defense was suspect.”

Wizards coach Scott Brooks echoed the defensive struggles.

“The problem was that we couldn’t stay in front of the basketball tonight,” said Brooks, addressing a broad topic he largely could skip during the recent winning. 

Washington no longer ranks last in scoring defense thanks to the woeful Atlanta Hawks, but the 116.9 points allowed per game serves as a reminder that Friday’s struggles were no one-off.

Brooklyn had its own defensive woes during a three-game skid entering Friday. Second-year center Jarrett Allen, the player the Nets selected 22nd overall in the 2017 NBA Draft with the pick acquired from Washington in the Bojan Bogdanovic trade, missed the previous two contests. His return fueled an interior turnaround.

Those stops led to Brooklyn’s generating offense. The Nets, who often used no more than one traditional big man, outscored the Wizards 13-2 in fast-break points. They hit 13 of 15 free throws in the third quarter and finished 30 of 38.

“I thought because we got stops, (we) got into transition, got easy buckets,” Nets forward and ex-Wizard Jared Dudley told NBC Sports Washington. “I thought they were fouling so much we were on our drives. We kept attacking. … I thought defense opened up our offense.”

Wall opened up the postgame Q&A session with reporters in Washington’s locker room. He noted Brooklyn’s constant use of pick-and-rolls with the Wizards switching one through four didn’t work. “Just about every time they drove, they got a foul.”

Wall lives a fishbowl existence. People pay good money to watch him work. That means they witness the highs and lows, the advancement and the learning. Teammates also have eyes on him. All observe the five-time All-Star reacting to some whistles or non-calls he deems incorrect, or his body language during a tough loss.

Wall, 28, acknowledges his role as the team leader. He accepts that fishbowl reality and knows when those frustrations show, everyone can see.

“It’s fun. It’s a challenge," Wall said of being a leader to NBC Sports Washington Thursday. "Every day you have to be perfect. Nobody is perfect, but you have to be good every day. You can’t take a bad day or dwell on something. You have to let that slide because when it gets bad or gets shaky, everybody is looking at you. If your head is down, everybody else’s head is down. That’s something I have to learn."

Despite the streak-busting setback Friday night, Wall stuck with his big picture, no panic approach.

“They just came out and played better tonight. That’s all it is,” Wall told NBC Sports Washington. “We didn’t make shots. We didn’t do a great job of executing. They attacked us defensively. We lost one game. We have to get past and prepare for Sunday with a good team in Portland coming in.”

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Inability to make threes sinks Wizards vs. Nets, who happen to be great at stopping them

Inability to make threes sinks Wizards vs. Nets, who happen to be great at stopping them

In an age where taking and making a lot of threes is every NBA team's goal, the Brooklyn Nets have mastered the ability to prevent their opponents from doing so. The Wizards found that out the hard way on Friday night in their 115-104 loss, which dropped them to 5-10 on the season.

Against the Nets, the Wizards attempted only 17 threes. They made three of them, which is tied for the fewest long range makes for any team this season. 

Only three times this season has an NBA team made only three three-pointers. Brooklyn can boast two of those games, having also held the Cavs to three triples on Oct. 24.

To their credit, the Nets are exceptionally good at locking down the perimeter. After beating the Wizards, they have surrendered the fewest three-point makes and attempts in the NBA.

The Wizards haven't shot well from three this season, but they have at least been good at taking them. They are 27th out of 30 teams at 32.2 percent from three, but their 31.9 attempts per game are about five more than they averaged last season.

Shooting more threes has been the Wizards' intention. It's something head coach Scott Brooks wanted to see this season from his team. 

Though they aren't going in, he believes they will at some point. The Wizards were fourth in basketball last year in three-point percentage (37.5).

But on Friday, the Nets took the Wizards' recent shooting woes to the extreme. They did so by using a two-tiered defensive approach.

They closed out the three-point line, forcing the Wizards to pass or dribble into the mid-range. While the Wizards would normally keep going to the rim, waiting for them was center Jarrett Allen.

Allen blocks 1.9 shots per game and alters many more. He also happens to have been acquired with the 2017 first round pick the Wizards sent over in the Bojan Bogdanovic trade. 

Without an easy path to the rim, the Wizards were encouraged to settle for midrange shots. That's exactly what they do not want to do, but they took what the defense was giving them. 

It just didn't work.

"They were clogging up the paint and we just didn’t have anything going offensively," Brooks said.

Of the Wizards' 87 total field goal attempts against the Nets, 80.5 percent of them were two-pointers. Their season average is 63.5 percent.

"They forced us to take the midrange shot, which is a bad shot. It was tough," guard Austin Rivers said.

The Wizards have now lost three of their last four games against the Nets dating back to last season. In the three losses, they have made five threes or fewer. In the lone win, they made 10.

Though threes are always important in today's NBA, they have been a huge determinant of wins and losses in this particular matchup.

Shooting guard Bradley Beal, for one, believes the way to get threes off against Brooklyn is to play faster. He thinks they need to take more in transition.

That may be the case. But they have to figure out something against this Brooklyn team because the current approach hasn't been working.

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