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Wizards' confidence skyrockets: 'If we play to our abilities, we can't be stopped'

Wizards' confidence skyrockets: 'If we play to our abilities, we can't be stopped'

CLEVELAND -- Before Saturday's game tipped off, Scott Brooks didn't care much about the pats on the back his team received for losing on Feb. 6 at Verizon Center, ending a 17-game home winning streak. The only validation that matters is winning in the second game of a back-to-back.

"You have to go out there and play well every night. It's one thing to have a great game against the best team in the league and lose. Of course they're going to say great things about you," Brooks said of that 140-135 overtime loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers. "It doesn't mean anything. That last game means nothing."

After trailing 8-7, the Wizards (45-28) led by as many as 17 points and dominated the defending champs at Quicken Loans Arena on Saturday night behind a combined 64 points and 17 assists from the starting backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal.

The Cavs kept making a push to get back on top. They cut a 40-26 deficit after the first quarter to 65-59 with 1:03 left in the second. They trimmed a 71-61 halftime deficit to 92-89 with 1:28 left in the third. They got a 107-98 disadvantage down to 109-105 in the fourth, but in the end it was a 127-115 loss.

It puts Cleveland's hold to the No. 1 seed in the East in doubt. They're just one-half game ahead of the Boston Celtics. It keeps the No. 3 Wizards one game ahead of the No. 4 Toronto Raptors, but big picture it means more than any of that. 

Wall was unstoppable. It didn't matter if the Cavs (47-25) went under the screens because he'd hit the jumper. If they went over he'd get to the rim. If they blitzed him he'd either split the double-team or make the simple pass to find the open man for a clean look. 

"Whenever I get to knock down my first two mid-ranges, I was in a rhythm early of making shots," said Wall, who began making his first eight shots and finished 14-for-21 en route to his 47th double-double. "After that they started pressing up more and I started getting to the basket."

Kyrie Irving was no match for the second consecutive time in the matchup. He shot 8-for-24 before. He was 8-for-23 with just four assists this time.

"When John is shooting like that, because you know he's going to get those guys involved, they're a very tough team to beat," LeBron James said. "They've got so many guys that complement one another. Great starting five, great bench and that was without (Bojan) Bogdanovic, too."

Bogdanovic was a late scratch because of back tightness, but the more experienced and poised team down the stretch when stops were needed? That was the Wizards coming through and not the team that won the NBA title a year ago.

With 5:29 left in the game, Wall took over the team during a timeout. They'd gotten the lead back up to 115-105 after a putback from Kelly Oubre. Their point guard wanted to make sure the Cavs, who needed a Hail Mary three-pointer from James to force overtime a month ago, weren't given any daylight. He reinforced to them what to look for, what to take away and what to allow but never to lose the intensity that got them to that point.

"The thing that I see, the improvement as each month has gone by is his leadership," Brooks said of Wall. "That's a prime example when the game could go either way ... the voice of our leaders have to step up in the huddle. I thought John was tremendous throughout the game."

Cleveland sill won the season series 2-1, but winning on their floor is important to the Wizards who aspire to at least get to the conference finals. They've already clinched their third playoff berth in four years, but they only got to the semis and bowed out twice in six games. 

"We don't want to go into the playoffs and have to face those guys never having won against them in the regular season." Wall said. 

Markieff Morris, who has battled a sinus infection and foul trouble as he has struggled to regain his form since the All-Star break, anchored the middle in a 31-point fourth quarter for the small lineup. 

He has been salty about the matchup since the last loss. He played 11 of 12 minutes to end it and only shot 1-for-4 but did the intangible things to get them over the hump, but before that he faced up Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson and James to get crucial baskets.

"Those are great players they got but we feel as though we're the best team in the league," said Morris, who has never been to the postseason in his previous six seasons. "If we play to our abilities, we can't be stopped."

[RELATED: VIDEO: Jason Smith knees LeBron James in the groin]

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Dwight Howard opts into second year of contract with Wizards

Dwight Howard opts into second year of contract with Wizards

The Wizards are set to have Dwight Howard back for a second year, as the veteran center informed the team of his plans to exercise the $5.6 million player option in his contract for the 2019-20 season, NBC Sports Washington has confirmed.

Howard, 33, indicated to Wizards brass in his exit meeting last week he was likely to opt in to the second and final year of his deal, but there was some thought he would wait until closer to the June 29 deadline. The reason why is Howard's continued recovery from the back surgery he had in November, a procedure that kept him sidelined for the final five months of the season.

But Howard has now made his intentions known, giving the Wizards a clearer picture of their offseason. With him in the mix, they essentially have five players under contract next season. They technically have six, though Jabari Parker's $20 million team option is essentially a lock to not be picked up.

Howard appeared in only nine games in his first season with the Wizards. He missed all of training camp and their preseason schedule with back issues, played for just over two weeks in November and then went down for the year. He had the surgery, a lumbar microdiscotemy, on Nov. 30. 

Though his time on the floor was brief, he put up solid numbers with averages of 12.8 points and 9.2 rebounds. The Wizards missed his rebounding in particular, as they finished 27th in the league in the category and 28th in rebounds against.

Howard will certainly hope for a better showing in Year 2 with the Wizards, though there may be no guarantee he actually comes back. The Wizards are currently searching for a new general manager, and that person could choose to go in a different direction if ownership permits them to.

Keep in mind last summer Howard was traded soon after Mitch Kupchak took over the Hornets' front office and the Nets bought him out immediately after acquiring him. Howard's $5.6 million salary is relatively inexpensive, as Brooklyn paid $18.9 million to part ways.

Time will tell if Howard's career continues in Washington, but for now he is slated to come back next season for a second year with the Wizards.

ESPN's Zach Lowe first reported the news of Howard opting in.

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How John Wall's injury affects the Wizards' many decisions this summer

How John Wall's injury affects the Wizards' many decisions this summer

With the 2018-19 season in the rearview for the Washington Wizards, we at NBC Sports Washington are analyzing the five biggest questions of what should be the most consequential offseason they have had in years...

NO. 4: HOW WILL JOHN WALL'S CONTRACT AFFECT ROSTER CONSTRUCTION?

Though there are several events this summer that could ultimately define the Wizards' offseason, one storyline will hang over everything and factor into just about every decision made by the front office and whomever ends up leading it as the team's new general manager. That is the future of John Wall, who is set to miss at least most of next season due to a ruptured left Achilles, in what will be the first year of his supermax contract.

Wall had surgery on Feb. 12. Even if he returns one year after going under the knife, he will still miss roughly 50 games next season. When he does come back, there are no guarantees he will be the same player. He turns 29 in September and a ruptured Achilles is a very serious injury, especially for a guy whose game has traditionally been reliant on speed.

The Wizards, of course, hope Wall will regain his peak form, but even if that happens it is unlikely to be the case right away. It may not be until the 2020-21 season until the Wizards get a true read on Wall post-surgery and how much value he can provide while making the money he is due. 

Speaking of the money, Wall will still take up a considerable chunk of the salary cap despite not playing. He is set to earn 35 percent of the cap next season, which right now is projected at about $37.8 million. Though that could technically fluctuate based on the final cap number, the percentage is what matters. The Wizards will basically have to build a roster with only 65 percent of the cap at their disposal.

There is an argument that Wall's injury is one of the biggest roster-building obstacles in NBA history. Supermax contracts, ones that allow players to make a contract that begins at 35 percent of the salary cap, are a new concept. And no one else has suffered such a serious injury while getting paid that type of money. 

It may not be quite what the Brooklyn Nets overcame in the fallout of their infamous trade with the Boston Celtics, the one that resulted in a net loss of three first round picks. But it's a bad situation, one that will require some creativity from whomever is tasked with pulling the Wizards out of it.

The long-term ramifications will depend on how Wall plays when he returns, but the short-term effect will clearly be felt. First, the Wizards have to have an insurance policy at point guard and a good one if they hope to compete for the playoffs. Maybe that is as simple as re-signing Tomas Satoransky, but regardless they have to shore up that position, knowing Wall's status.

Second, the Wizards need to find bargains to fill out the rest of their roster. They will have to find some cheap players simply to reach the 13-player minimum with Bradley Beal's max deal also on the books. Beal will earn roughly $27.1 million next season.

The biggest question as it pertains to Wall may deal with the NBA Draft on June 20. What if the Wizards get some luck in the May 14 draft lottery, but not enough to get the No. 1 pick (i.e. Zion Williamson), and Ja Morant is the best player on the board? Morant, of course, is the Murray State superstar who lit up the NCAA Tournament in March.

Morant is dynamic and has serious star potential, and he plays point guard. Wall was already asked about the potential of the Wizards drafting a point guard with a high pick. He said he would be fine with it, but that when he returns that draft pick can "be a great back-up" to him.

If the Wizards picked Morant, or even Coby White of North Carolina, it would arguably be the smart move to make. They need to select the best player available, no matter the position. 

But if they do take a point guard, that will present a unique dynamic to their locker room, especially if that player turns into a star. What if Morant comes in and lights it up as a rookie? How will Wall deal with that? And could you then put Morant on the bench when Wall returns, as Wall suggests they would?

Those are hypothetical scenarios that can be addressed if they actually enter the equation this summer and beyond. But there is no question that, even as Wall is sidelined with an injury, his presence will loom over the Wizards in many ways.

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