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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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Celtics and Sixers may go relatively unchanged this offseason, as stars have gone elsewhere

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Celtics and Sixers may go relatively unchanged this offseason, as stars have gone elsewhere

The 2018 NBA offseason in just three weeks has become one of the wildest summers in the league's history between LeBron James signing with the Lakers, and all the characters that followed him, to DeMarcus Cousins surprising everyone to sign with the Golden State Warriors, to Kawhi Leonard getting traded to the Raptors.

As crazy as it all has been, two teams in the Eastern Conference stand out for so far doing very little, either by choice or circumstance. The Celtics and Sixers, the two teams most see as the favorites in the East, appear at least so far to be running it back with the same group of players.

This appears to be the Celtics' intention. After overhauling their roster last summer, they clearly see an opportunity to take a step forward as-is. Boston was one win away from the NBA Finals and will return Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving from injury. With James gone to the West, they can improve significanly just by keeping it all together.

Boston re-signed Marcus Smart and Aron Baynes. Their biggest addition this summer so far has been their first round pick, Robert Williams.

The Sixers, unlike the Celtics, didn't appear to plan on doing it this way. They wanted James and missed out. They reportedly had interest in Paul George and Kawhi Leonard, but both went elsewhere. There are no stars left to sign in free agency and the trade market may be drying up.

Philly made some minor moves like trades for Wilson Chandler and Mike Muscala. They may also have a deal for Kyle Korver in the works. They also had two first round picks in Zhaire Smith and Landry Shamet.

There's a chance the Sixers got better than people think, as many of the moves they made seem smart. But they didn't reel in a big fish and will probably come back for the 2018-19 season with a team very similar to the one that made the second round of the playoffs this spring.

The fact the Celtics and Sixers may stand pat is probably a good thing for the rest of the East. Both teams may improve naturally if they are healthier and if their young players continue to ascend. But neither made a game-changing addition, one that would solidify either as an unstoppable superteam in the conference. 

The West is overloaded with title contenders and All-NBA players. The East, meanwhile, is much more open and it may end up staying that way mainly because Boston and Philly have been quiet so far this summer.

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Wizards set introductory press conference for Dwight Howard

Wizards set introductory press conference for Dwight Howard

Wizards team president Ernie Grunfeld has stayed relatively busy this summer crafting his new-look lineup for the 2018-19 season. 

One of the team's key additions, Dwight Howard, is set to be introduced as a member of the Wizards on Monday. 

NBC Sports Washington will air the introductory press conference live at 1 p.m. while also streaming it online.  

Ernie Grunfeld and head coach Scott Brooks are both expected to be in attendance. 

The 32-year-old big man is coming off a 2017-18 season with the Charlotte Hornets in which he averaged 16.6 points and 12.5 rebounds per game. 

Since leaving the Orlando Magic after eight seasons in 2011, Howard has played for four different teams in the last six years. 

Howard is an eight-time all-star and a three-time defensive player of the year. 

 

RELATED LINKS: 

John Wall's take on Dwight Howard 

Wizards make Dwight Howard free agent signing official 

By the numbers: Is new Wizards center Dwight Howard still in his NBA prime?