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Wizards know wins against East foes like Indiana are extra important

Wizards know wins against East foes like Indiana are extra important

There are are two months until the playoffs begin and 29 games left for the Wizards to play before their regular season schedule runs out. A lot can happen between now and then, both good and bad. To assume they will earn a playoff spot is premature at this point, as easy as the postseason is for fans, media and players alike to dream about.

But there are also games over the course of a season that matter more than most, ones that invoke the big picture, no matter how they are described in the language of coach-speak. And Friday night was one of those games for the Wizards, a showdown with Indiana Pacers, the sixth-ranked team in the Eastern Conference. The Wizards currently sit third, meaning they would face the Pacers if the playoffs began today.

Even more important than that dynamic is the fact the conference itself is so bunched up. The Wizards are two games out of second, but the Pacers are only three games behind Washington. Tiebreakers could come into play in April and head-to-head season series records are at the top of the tiebreaker list.

After Friday night's 112-107 victory over the Pacers, the Wizards hold a 2-1 advantage in the season series with the finale coming up on Feb. 16. Was all of that lost on the Wizards? Of course not.

It is super important. We take it seriously," shooting guard Bradley Beal said. "That is something that is in the back of our head. At this point of the year, you are looking at seeding. You are looking further down the line at playoffs, and where you want to be and what the match ups are going to be potentially so we just take it a game at a time, a series at a time, and try to get them all.”

"We came into this game talking about that, we knew it was going to be very important," point guard John Wall said. "It was a big win against them, but we have them again next week so its going to be a big game to try and win the whole series against them. They're a tough team, they're a great team at home. We just have to keep playing well and defending." 

[RELATED: Markieff Morris not cool with 'Phoenix Outlaws' nickname]

Center Marcin Gortat addressed the next matchup in more detail. The Wizards really want to take three of four and avoid a split in their four games against the Pacers. He knows the Pacers will have the playoffs on their mind.

"The hardest thing right now is that we're going to play against this team in a few days again and they are definitely come out ready to play. They're going to try to punch us back for what we did here at home. It's actually a really hard situation for us," Gortat said.

The Wizards hold a winning record against four of the seven other teams currently in the Eastern Conference playoff picture. They are 2-1 against the Pacers, Hawks, Celtics and Bulls. They are 1-1 against the Pistons, 0-2 against Cleveland and 0-1 against Toronto.

The playoffs remain far off in the distance, but it's not too early to begin thinking about what could help the Wizards down the road.

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

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Austin Rivers believes he can help the Wizards on defense as much as anything

Austin Rivers believes he can help the Wizards on defense as much as anything

When asked at his introductory press conference for how he will fit on the Wizards' roster from a basketball perspective, guard Austin Rivers didn't first cite his three-point shooting, his ability to affect games scoring off the bench or his speed to run the floor with John Wall and Bradley Beal. The first thing he point to was his defense.

That may have surprised some people out there as Rivers has long been known for his scoring ability and not so much his skills on the other end. It's not that he can't play defense, it's just that most of the highlights he's produced over the years have been due to his high-flying finishes at the rim and wicked pull-up jumper from three-point range.

Defense, though, is something Rivers takes pride in and he hopes to continue developing as a defender in Washington.

"With how much Brad and John have to do every night, for them to not have to always guard the best guard on the other team, that's something I can come in here and do. Try to bring that competitive spirit and be one of the defenders on the team," Rivers said.

Rivers' defensive ability has produced some controversy among Wizards fans and media members on social media. Some insist he does not bring value on that end of the floor, while some numbers suggest he does have some defensive potential.

Last season, Rivers averaged a career-high 1.2 steals per game. He was tied for fifth on the Clippers in defensive win shares.

However, his 113 defensive rating was his worst since 2013-14. It was an outlier on the Clippers and not in the good way. He also ranked nowhere near the top of the league in deflections or contested three-point shots, two hustle stats that guys like Wall and Beal fair well in.

Rivers points to two attributes that he believes make him a strong perimeter defender. One is his versatility and the other you could call scrappiness.

"On defense [the Wizards] can switch one through three or one through four. I think that gives us a lot of dangerous options," he said.

As for his scrappiness, Rivers says it comes from the early days of his career.

"I had to figure out ways to be effective without [a jumpshot] and that's how I became a defender. I guess everything happens for a reason, right? I'm happy I did have those early career struggles because it made me find a side of me that I didn't do [early on]. Because I promise you I didn't play any defense at Duke," he said.

The last line drew laughter from those gathered at his introductory press conference. Rivers insists that he now takes that end of the floor very seriously. The Wizards certainly hope he can back up his words.

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John Wall offers thoughts on Wizards' biggest offseason additions including Dwight Howard

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John Wall offers thoughts on Wizards' biggest offseason additions including Dwight Howard

At his final media availability of the 2017-18 season, John Wall highlighted specific types of players he wanted to see added to the Wizards roster this summer. Most notably, he pointed to an athletic big and bench scoring.

The Wizards ended up adding those things and more.

They signed Dwight Howard and Jeff Green to free agent deals, traded for Austin Rivers and drafted Troy Brown, Jr. in the first round. Howard is the athletic big and Rivers is the bench scorer Wall coveted.

Whether coincidental or not, Wall got his wish. And he's excited for the possibilities now that the Wizards appear to have shored up some weaknesses.

In his recent interview with Chris Miller on our Wizards Tipoff podcast, Wall offered thoughts on each key addition.

On Howard: "Even though he's older, he's still an athletic big and still has respect in this league. I mean, averaging [16.6 ppg and 12.5 rpg], he's a guy who can score in the low-post and block shots, a guy that gets a lot of rebounds and a guy that can catch lobs and do things that when teams switch against us or we're attacking the paint, if they help for a second then we're throwing lobs. Now, do you get more layups? Probably. Or, you get more wide open threes because guys are going to have to crack down on him. If you don't crack down on him, that's an automatic layup or a lob. I think that benefits us a lot. It's going to help. If you look at [Clint] Capela, DeAndre [Jordan] and those types of guys that are athletic, JaVale [McGee]. Even JaVale at times, being athletic and just getting to the paint. Guys are stepping up and you're throwing lobs to those guys. We have a person that can do that."

On Rivers: "I think it's going to be fun and interesting. Austin is someone who I've always watched since high school. He's a competitive guy. He definitely can score the ball. High volume shooter, once he gets it going, he's going. I think it just gives us that guy that we've never really had off the bench, that can create for himself and can create for his teammates at the two-guard position."

On Green: "Just being able to switch one through four, a guy that can post up if you put smaller guys on him. He can guard every position. He's athletic and can run the floor with us in transition. He does the little things that a lot of people don't notice."

On Brown: "He's very poised for his age. He doesn't try to force anything. The only thing I would tell him is just be more aggressive... and make mistakes. Try to make mistakes and improve your game to get better. It's going to be hard to find minutes and at practice at times with [Kelly Oubre, Jr.] and Otto [Porter, Jr.] and those guys being there."

Listen to Wall's full 1-on-1 interview on the Wizards Tipoff podcast:

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