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Blazers claim culture is king while Wizards search for fixes 

Blazers claim culture is king while Wizards search for fixes 

CAPITAL ONE ARENA -- NBA franchises go stale. It happens.

Setbacks occur on and off the court. Some obstacles, like falling short of playoff expectations, might shake a franchise to its core. Others fall back on an established ethos that sets expectations and ideals so that when tough times arrive, restoring balance isn’t arduous.

The Portland Trailblazers believe their culture keeps them flying high.

Portland started a run of five consecutive postseason appearances in 2013 after a combined 61 wins the prior two seasons. Twice it won a round, but never more than one.

Last season seemed like a chance for another series triumph, but the No. 3 seed was stunned by New Orleans during a four-game sweep. Such frustration might send some teams into a tizzy, lead outsiders to call for heads. The Blazers kept their cool. The core remained.

Following Sunday’s 119-109 win over the Wizards, Portland (11-5) moved percentage points ahead of Golden State for first in the Western Conference. 

“I think it just shows the character of our team,” All-Star guard Damian Lillard said of Portland’s resiliency shortly after scoring 40 points against Washington. “That’s from our coaches to the training staff to players on the team. We enjoy the process of what we’re building together. We’re committed to each other. That’s the biggest thing. We all want to have success and we all know that doesn’t happen overnight.”

The turn began in 2012 with the arrival of several leaders, including Lillard, general manager Neil Olshey and coach Terry Stotts. Another foundational move came in 2013 with the selection of a second consecutive first-round guard, C.J. McCollum.

That backcourt pairing, similar to the Wizards’ duo of John Wall and Bradley Beal, became the headliners, the tone-setters. They learned how to win, how to lead.

“We have a lot of good guys on the team. Damian and C.J. are good friends. They’re both very talented players,” Portland coach Terry Stotts said. “They complement each other well. I don’t know. Maybe I just take it for granted, but I try not to. We’ve got really good culture and it’s led by those two guys.”

Forward Meyers Leonard, Portland’s second lottery pick after Lillard in 2012, also promoted the power of the franchise’s values in keeping the team from imploding when struggles arise.

“What’s expected of you every single day, both as a person and a player. Guys show up to the facility ready to work. It’s a good environment. Everyone enjoys being there. Everyone works hard. … Getting work in before practice, getting work in after practice. Being willing to compete in practice and never take anything personal because we know we want to get better. That all translates to the game.”

While the Blazers talked cohesion, the Wizards spent another evening looking for answers. Washington, which trailed 32-12 and by 21 at halftime, fell to 5-11.

“It was terrible,” Beal said.

“You don't win games by just playing, you win games by competing,” Wizards coach Scott Brooks said. “And you win games by competing for your teammates, and you don't win games any other way. There is no team in this league that can win games if you don't compete for your teammates. And I got to find five guys that are willing to do that.”

Washington started the season 1-6 with its only victory coming at Portland Oct. 22, 125-124 in overtime. Markieff Morris led the Wizards with 28 points, and Otto Porter blocked Lillard’s potential game-winning shot at the buzzer. Portland’s starting guards shot a dismal 12-for-46 from the field, though Lillard still scored 29.

He wasn’t particularly efficient in the rematch either (12 for 29 field goals) but some positive aspects continued. Lillard’s tenacity showed especially Sunday with Portland coming off back-to-back losses. In both games, Lillard made 13 of 15 free throws. Whether the shots were falling or not, he decided this was a game where laying back wasn’t an option.

“We wanted to come in and be sharp. I knew that being a leader on this team, I had to come out here and kind of enforce that and impose my will and be aggressive and assertive and live with the result,” Lillard said. “That was my mindset coming in and I was going to keep my foot on that gas until there was no time left to make sure we got it done.”

They did and now sit in the reified air, looking down at Golden State in the standings. From the Blazers’ perspective, this result wasn’t about a good night’s work, but long-running connections.

“The more you connect on a personal level with your teammates, your coaches, with everybody the more success you’re going to have. The more you’re gonna want to work,” Leonard said. “The more you’re going to compete as hard as you possibly can. It all comes back to culture. When we get free agents, it’s what’s expected. It’s fun to be around. It’s fun to come to work. That’s what I would say is the biggest thing.”

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Wizards come out of All-Star break facing Hornets with playoff stakes on the line

Wizards come out of All-Star break facing Hornets with playoff stakes on the line

Eight full days will have passed between games for the Wizards when they tip off against the Charlotte Hornets on Friday night (7 p.m. on NBC Sports Washington). That week-plus gave plenty of time for the Wizards to rest up and reset for the final 24 games of the season.

It also offered time for reflection and for where they currently stand in the playoff race to set in. While the game-by-game churn before the All-Star break allowed the team and their observers to get lost in the rhythm of the season, the reality is they have lost seven of 10 and are three games out of a playoff spot.

The Wizards will come out of the break hoping the time off shifted their momentum in the other direction. While teams that were on winning streaks aim to keep it rolling despite they layoff, the Wizards will look for a fresh start.

It won't be easy to make up the necessary ground in time before the regular season runs out, but they have a real opportunity against the Hornets. Charlotte is seventh in the Eastern Conference and 3 1/2 games ahead of the Wizards in the postseason hunt. 

A win against the Hornets would allow the Wizards to inch closer in the standings and give them a second victory against Charlotte this season. Head-to-head records can determine playoff tiebreakers and the Wizards won the first of four meetings between the teams back on Dec. 29.

There are four total games between the Wizards and Hornets this season. The final two are both in March. If the Wizards win on Friday, they will have two chances to take the tiebreaker.

There is some irony in the timing of the Wizards' match-up with the Hornets. It was this Charlotte team that Washington began their initial surge without John Wall against.

They learned Wall would be done for the season the day of their first meeting with the Hornets. That night, they beat Charlotte and went on to win eight of 12 games. 

The Wizards will need at least one more run like that if they are to climb back into the playoff race. They have to get hot and sooner than later.

Working in their favor will be the return of Tomas Satoransky to the starting lineup. The point guard missed the final two games before the break due to the birth of his first child

Perhaps they can get things going once again by starting with the Hornets, just like they did nearly two months ago.

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For now, Wizards anticipate leaning on Dwight Howard's experience more than his body

For now, Wizards anticipate leaning on Dwight Howard's experience more than his body

WASHINGTON -- Dwight Howard’s official return to the Wizards practice facility came with a new job description: Mentor.

“Since he can’t be on the practice court or the game floor, he’s going to have to share his wisdom,” Wizards coach Scott Brooks said of the 14-year veteran.

Howard stepped onto Washington’s practice court Thursday for the first time since undergoing back surgery on Nov. 30. The veteran center began his rehab work in his native Atlanta before rejoining the team.

“He feels great. Said he has no pain,” Brooks said of Howard. “That’s good. That’s part of the process.”

For now Howard remains limited to non-contact work and is perhaps weeks away from game action.

Brooks intends on putting him to work regardless by having Howard impart his NBA insight onto Washington’s young big men, Thomas Bryant and Bobby Portis.

“The guy has a lot of experience. A lot of years under his belt,” Brooks said of Howard, an eight-time All-Star. “Now he has the ability to be around our guys every day. [Bryant and Portis] have to be a sponge. They have to pick everything up.”

Bryant, 21, replaced the injured Howard as Washington’s starting center. The Wizards acquired Portis, 24, on Feb. 6 in a multi-player trade that sent Otto Porter to the Chicago Bulls. Bryant and Portis, both restricted free agents this summer, represent Washington’s best interior options now and perhaps key building blocks going forward.

“You get better in this league by being around good veteran players that want to share their knowledge,” Brooks said, “and Dwight is going to be a guy that’s going to be able to do that for the next how many weeks until he gets on the court.”

Basic movements – sitting, for example – were issues for Howard pre-surgery. Brooks said he was not sure how much running Howard would do this week. He will start on the court solo. Eventually, a coach or three will work with Howard for 5-on-0 drills. Full contact practice with teammates comes later.

Howard was seen shooting free throws after practice concluded. Injured players are not required to speak with the media until participating during an official practice.

For now, the coach took pleasure in welcoming the projected opening game starter back to town.

“It was good to see him, good to have him back,” Brooks said. “He did some treatments and then did some work on the court, light shooting. That’s about it. It’s good to have him back. He has a good way about him. He’s always positive, always has a good spirit about him.”

Integrating the low-post presence into the small-ball approach Brooks leaned with Howard sidelined becomes a curious topic. That’s for later, perhaps weeks away, as the coach suggested. The playoff-pushing Wizards must forge on without Howard, who has played in only nine games this season.

Washington (24-34), 11th in the Eastern Conference and three games back of Detroit for the eighth and final playoff spot, has 24 games remaining in the regular season.

Howard will stay behind when the team opens the post-All-Star-break phase Friday at Charlotte, but likely travels with the team going forward, Brooks said.

“He’s happy to be back,” Brooks said of Howard. “Now it’s just a phase of getting him on the court. I don’t know how long that’s going to be.”

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