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Wizards 'unstoppable' if this is Markieff Morris' NBA playoff form

Wizards 'unstoppable' if this is Markieff Morris' NBA playoff form

Two years ago, Markieff Morris played for a 39-win team headed nowhere in the Phoenix Suns. At best he was a spectator as the Wizards, then the No. 5 seed and starting Nene at power forward, upset the Atlanta Hawks in Game 1 of the conferrence semifinals only to then have Paul Millsap say this: "Internally, we felt like we won the game."

Fast forward to Sunday, when Morris was playing in his first playoff game in six NBA seasons. It was his first full season in Washington. A matchup problem for Millsap whenever they're matched up this season, Morris dominated. Though statictisally it didn't look lopsided, it was indeed. 

Millsap isn't getting under their skin as much as Morris appears to be getting under his.

 "The ball is like gold now. Every possession counts, so I'm going head-first every play," said Morris after 21 points on 8 of 19 shooting, seven rebounds and four blocks. "We're going to jostle the whole series and that's what it's going to be."

Morris picked up his first foul 17 seconds into the game on Millsap's move to the basket. Despite that, he was able to stay out of trouble and on the floor. Millsap had the better first half in terms of scoring with 12 points, but Morris closed strong.

He made all three foul shots after Millsap ran into him on a three just before the halftime buzzer and had words with his foe on the way out. Then Morris emerged from the locker room more edgy than when the game started, when he had consecutive blocks on Millsap and Dwight Howard in the second quarter.

"We've been telling him in the second half of the season, he's not going to get open unless he creates opportunities to get open," coach Scott Brooks said. "He's been doing that the last couple of games of the season." 

[RELATED: John Wall took over vs. Hawks, kicked offense into high gear]

Morris' three, then a jumper and floater put the Wizards ahead for good as they erased what had been an eight-point first-half deficit for good to win Game 1, 114-107, at Verizon Center. 

The edge Morris had goes beyond numbers. When Atlanta allowed Howard to defend him, Morris can pull him so far away from the basket it opens up the floor for the willing passer. Howard tends to be reluctant to vacate and that's how Morris made one of his three-pointers. 

Nene was valuable for the Wizards, particularly three years ago when they won their first playoff series. Then-first-timers John Wall and Bradley Beal didn't play well and he carried them. But when the Wizards went up against the Hawks the next year, the aged 7-footer was playing out of position trying to chase around Millsap. Drew Gooden wasn't up for the task. And when the Wizards tried to to make Kris Humphries and Jared Dudley stretch fours, they didn't match up well with Millsap, either. 

Morris does. The biggest mismatch with Atlanta comes when Ersan Ilyasova tries to stay in front of Morris who is too good off the dribble and facing up. He can get to his spots at will and it forces Atlanta to help. Kelly Oubre's three-pointer to give the Wizards a 95-83 lead in the fourth came off such a play, when Morris reversed the ball to Brandon Jennings in the opposite corner who then found Oubre spotting up. 

"Like I said last year when we first got him, I was excited. He changed everything right away for us," Wall said. "We didn't have to go big in the post anymore. If any team had a four man that could score, we could go right back at him and he can score on their man in the post. He changed our team a whole lot and he understands that. But most importantly, he was one of those guys that bought in. He had never been to the playoffs before. He shied away from getting a lot of shots at times but he's doing everything to help our team win."

Morris doesn't require such help if he's defending Ilyasova, who also can stretch to the three-point line, or Millsap. That means the Wizards don't have to leave shooters open to compensate for a deficiency like they used to do. Millsap had four turnovers, a key one to start the third quarter as Morris inspired a game-changing run. He went up to draw contact that Morris avoided, left his feet and came down with the ball for a traveling violation. A 48-45 halftime deficit became a 57-52 lead three minutes into the third and the Wizards would never look back. 

"It's incredible, man. He's been telling me that he's been ready for this moment since he was drafted," Oubre said of Morris. "He hadn't had the opportunity for seven years, but now that the opportunity is here, it's time to go take it. It don't matter if it's your first or your seventh year, when you make it to the playoffs you're going to make a name for yourself. That's what he's doing. That's what we're all trying to do."

Wall had his career-playoff high with 32 points and 14 assists. The entire starting five seemed to be back to their pre-All-Star break form. Each scored in double figures. 

"When he's playing as well as he did today for us," Wall said of Morris, "we're unstoppable."

[RELATED: Oubre on Morris vs. Millsap: 'Keef is better than him']

 

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GM Tommy Sheppard so far proving he is good at exactly what Wizards need

GM Tommy Sheppard so far proving he is good at exactly what Wizards need

There is an argument, and I've made it before, that John Wall's contract and injury situation combine for one of the biggest roster-building obstacles in NBA history. Never before has a player making as much money as he is suffered an injury as serious as his ruptured left Achilles. He takes up 35% of the salary cap, is not playing this season and has no guarantees of returning to his All-Star form once he comes back.

Even if Wall does return to his prime form, and there's reason to be hopeful he can, his contract includes a lot of money for the Wizards to work around. And that has created a scenario where making small moves count matter even more than they otherwise would.

The Wizards have to maximize all of their other resources, much like the Brooklyn Nets did when they ultimately overcame the disastrous 2014 trade with the Boston Celtics that left them paying a debt of high first-round picks for years. Brooklyn worked around their draft pick blackhole by hitting on late-round selections plus minor signings and trades. And they built a foundation along the way that made them surprising heavyweights in free agency. 

The Wizards have plenty of work to do, but first-year general manager Tommy Sheppard is already proving his worth in peripheral transactions, the types that turned the Nets around. They may be less-heralded acquisitions, but they can also become major separators between GMs.

Sheppard has been running the Wizards front office for less than a calendar year, yet he already has an impressive list of marginal moves. Just recently he turned Isaiah Thomas, who was a glaring detriment on the defensive end, into Jerome Robinson, the 13th overall pick just 20 months ago.

Last offseason, his first as GM, he flipped Aaron White, a former second-round pick who was stashed in Europe, for Davis Bertans, who has become one of the best shooters in the NBA. He also turned cap space into Moe Wagner and Isaac Bonga, two guys with intriguing potential. Wagner, in particular, has emerged as a building block.

There are other minor moves Sheppard has made that stand out as good ones. He may have found something in Garrison Mathews, a rookie on a two-way deal who can light it up from three. Anzejs Pasecniks and Gary Payton II have been nice surprises as end-of-the-roster guys. And signing Ish Smith for less money instead of retaining Tomas Satoransky has proven to be smart decision.

Sheppard continues to nail the smaller moves but he has also hit on some of the bigger ones. He drafted Rui Hachimura ninth overall in June and he has exceeded expectations thus far. Sheppard also re-signed Bradley Beal to a contract extension in October, a move few saw coming.

What will ultimately be the story of Sheppard's tenure as GM are decisions even bigger than those. There will also be some level of luck between the draft lottery, injuries and other factors.

But the best signs for what the Wizards should hope they get from Sheppard are already there. They need someone who can maximize all roster-building opportunities and work within the tight space of their remaining salary cap.

So far, Sheppard has done just that.

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Cavaliers reportedly parting ways with coach John Beilein ahead of matchup with Wizards

Cavaliers reportedly parting ways with coach John Beilein ahead of matchup with Wizards

As the Wizards continue to enjoy the All-Star break and prepare for the stretch run toward the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference, their first opponent following the break just made a significant change to their team. 

According to The Athletic's Shams Charania and Jason Lloyd, the Cavaliers and head coach John Beilein have agreed to part ways after 54 games. It was Beilein's first year on the job after a 12-year run at Michigan. 

Cleveland is expected to promote associate head coach J.B. Bickerstaff to replace Beilein. 

According to The Athletic's report, several factors weighed on Beilein and the Cavaliers' decision to part ways, including the team's on-and-off-court struggles, and his son's resignation at Niagra University. The Cavs were 14-40 under their new head coach this season. 

For the Wizards, they're in a position to build off a two-game winning streak they built going into the All-Star break with a matchup against a bad Cavaliers team going through major structural changes. Though it's possible the Cavs could play better under new leadership. 

Entering Friday's clash with the Cavs, Washington sits three games behind the Magic for the last playoff spot in the East. 

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