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Wizards clinch playoff spot for third time in four years

Wizards clinch playoff spot for third time in four years

Months after overcoming a dreadful 2-8 start and weeks after a trade deadline overhaul for their bench, the Washington Wizards (44-28) have clinched a spot in the NBA Playoffs for the third time in four years and in the first season of head coach Scott Brooks' tenure. They punched their ticket on Friday night with a win over the Nets and losses for both the Pistons and Bulls. The Wizards are officially back in a place they feel they belong.

This is the 28th time in franchise history that the Wizards will head to the postseason and this territory is nothing new for the current group led by star guards John Wall and Bradley Beal. But the expectations for this team may be higher now than they have been in decades. For the first time in a long time, the Wizards feel they can do some real damage and possibly reach the Eastern Conference Finals or beyond. 

What a difference a year makes for a team that just 11 months ago fired Randy Wittman following a 41-41 campaign that did not end in a playoff berth.

"It's great. The way we finished last year wasn't good for us," Wall said. "We wanted to go to the playoffs. We fell magnificently short of that. Then to come back, the way we started the season wasn't the way we wanted. We never threw anybody under the bus. We always stayed together as a team. I think that's the most important thing as a group, that we all figured it out. We all figured it out. We have a great run going. We just want to finish the season strong going into the playoffs."

The Wizards' turnaround began in December. They were 7-13 on Dec. 8 and had lost four of six, but since they have gone 37-15. That includes a stretch where they won 18 of 21 games before the NBA All-Star break.

Those losing days of November and December now seem like a distant memory with the Wizards on pace to win over 50 games for the first time since 1979.

"It's a journey. It's amazing to see the work that you put in," Beal said. "Last year was a disappointment for us. We wanted to be in the playoffs. This year we had no choice, we want to get in and this year we have more goals. We want to get [the] second [seed] now. Now we want to get to the Eastern Conference Finals. We want to try our best to get there."

As Beal alluded to, the Wizards still have short-term goals for the final 10 games of this season. They are 2 1/2 games behind the Celtics at third in the standings and would still like to pass them. But either way, the Wizards should enter the playoffs with an opportunity to reach the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since 1978-79, a span of 38 seasons. No D.C. major sports team (NBA, NFL, NHL, MLB) has reached the semfinals of their league since the Capitals in 1998. That's the longest streak among cities with at least three major sports teams in American sports.

Each time the Wizards made the playoffs in the Wall and Beal era, they advanced at least one round. In 2013-14 they beat the Bulls in the first round, then lost to the Pacers. The following season they swept the Raptors in the first round, then lost to the Hawks after Wall broke his wrist.

Now they are back and appear well-equipped for a deep run. Both Wall and Beal are two years older, enjoying good health and the best seasons of their careers. Otto Porter has emerged as one of the best three-point shooting threats in basketball. Markieff Morris has added a new element as a stretch four with versatility on defense. Marcin Gortat is rebounding more than ever before in his nine-year NBA career.

The Wizards have had deep benches before and their current group is starting to round into form. Bojan Bogdanovic can stretch the floor and get hot from three. Ian Mahinmi is a legitimate rim protector. Kelly Oubre, Jr. has infused youth and a unique ability to guard multiple positions on defense. Jason Smith always seems to provide a spark, whether it's with midrange shooting or rebounding. And Brandon Jennings now can keep the offense moving when Wall takes a rest.

Washington has star power and depth and that should bode well in April, May and June against whomever they face.

"It says a lot about our team," Brooks said about his team's turnaround. "It says a lot about our staff, not just the coaches, but our entire staff. We just keep charging ahead and doing our jobs. I love that about our team. We want to establish a culture that we all have a responsibility to one another to work hard and give everybody our best effort. That has happened. We've got 44 wins. It's good. We want to keep getting better."

The Wizards have stated their goal of obtaining a top three seed and it won't be easy. Breathing down their neck are the Raptors, who are just a game back in fourth place. If the Wizards fall to fourth, they could risk seeing the top seeded Cavaliers in the second round. Facing the best team in the conference that early would not be ideal.

Also standing in the Wizards way are the Celtics, who they could match up with in the second round. As for the first round, they are currently slotted to face the Milwaukee Bucks, who happen to be the hottest team in the East at the moment.

The Wizards have 10 regular season games left and bigger goals in mind. But on Friday they gave themselves an opportunity they had waited two long years for.

[RELATED: Markieff Morris on his slump, looking ahead to first playoffs]

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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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Wizards release statement on the passing of John Wall's mother

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Wizards release statement on the passing of John Wall's mother

The Washington Wizards announced the passing of John Wall's mother, Frances Pulley on Friday. 

Wall's mother had been battling cancer before her passing. She was 58. 

In a statement on Twitter, the Wizards said, "Sending thoughts and love for John Wall and his family after the passing of his mother, Frances Pulley. She will forever be a part of our #DCFamily."

Zach Leonsis, the senior vice president of strategic initiatives at Monumental Sports & Entertainment, also released a statement

"Thinking of @JohnWall and his family right now. Keeping you guys in our prayers. So terribly sorry for your loss and know that she will be remembered forever. #DCFamily

Wall's Kentucky coach, John Calipari also expressed his condolences for his former star: 

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