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Changes fuel Wizards win as Ian Mahinmi sits, Markieff Morris leads

Changes fuel Wizards win as Ian Mahinmi sits, Markieff Morris leads

The pre-game plan for this particular article went something like this: Focus on any changes, coaching or otherwise, for the sliding Washington Wizards in Sunday night’s meeting with the New York Knicks.

Here’s the most significant difference: They won.

That’s not sarcasm or a jab. Just like a slumping shooter needs to see one fall through the net, struggling teams require a victory of any kind just for a reminder of success. The Wizards did just that for a 108-95 triumph over the Knicks. Despite some second-half struggles against the try-hard, but overmatched New York squad, Washington improved to 2-7. Strategic tweaks were involved.

Scott Brooks strongly suggested changes would come following Friday’s 134-111 loss to Oklahoma City. One happened organically as Otto Porter (toe) was not available. Others occurred as Washington's head coach desired.

The rotation shrunk and not solely because Brooks didn’t replace Porter in the rotation. Only eight players entered the game in the first half. Jason Smith’s stint early in the fourth quarter briefly upped the rotation to nine. Seven players went at least 24 minutes. Brooks stated pregame, yet again, that it’s too early in the season for the panic button, but at 1-7, he went with a playoff rotation.

Ian Mahinmi never took off his warm-ups even though the Knicks kept a traditional center on the court throughout the game. Brooks made no apologies for sitting his veteran backup. The reality is Mahinmi’s limited offense makes him a liability on one end of the court, while his penchant for picking up fouls does the same on the other.

The return of Dwight Howard (10 points, 10 rebounds in 31 minutes) means Brooks has an interior option on the court often. If the Coach also wants to keep small-ball lineups for more than cameos, Mahinmi must sit. He did Sunday.

Without Mahinmi, Brooks used Markieff Morris at the five with the second unit* opening the second quarter. This is new for the 2018-19, but a throwback look to the 49-win 2016-17 campaign.

(* Kelly Oubre Jr. replaced Porter in the starting lineup, but returned to his usual spot with the reserves opening the second quarter.)

It’s unclear why Brooks went away from this scenario last season. Forget just Morris. Brooks often went without any starter opening the second quarter and sometimes the fourth.  That trend largely continued this season.

As for Morris, it’s apparent why blends nicely with the reserves.

When sharing the court with All-Stars Wall or Beal, the backups can become overly deferential. Morris, the power forward with the Philadelphia swagger, is one of the guys. He leads, but his presence doesn’t dominate.

“I do (like it) because I feel like I’m out there coaching,” Morris told NBC Sports Washington following the win. “I feel like I’m out there being the extra leader that those guys need. I can help structure it the right way. You can see my passing ability, my playmaking ability also.”

Morris played the entire second quarter and scored 12 of his 16 points. Though he often faces the basket on offense or handles the ball above the arc, Morris went to his post-up game against smaller defenders as the Wizards took advantage of the Knicks switching 1 thru 5.

“They were switching a lot, so I was trying to be aggressive,” Morris told NBC Sports Washington. “I felt (like) the last game I wasn’t as aggressive as I normally am.”

We’ll see if Brooks sticks with this Morris plan. There’s mounting evidence over the past season-plus as to why one of the starters with the second unit is ideal.

We know Brooks liked what he saw Sunday.

“Keef was really active tonight,” Brooks said. “I thought it worked.”

The defensive intensity also went up several notches compared to Friday’s debacle. The Wizards entered Sunday allowing a league-worst 123.9 points per game. Washington held New York to 95, the first time an opponent stayed below 100 this season.

Considering the opponent, Morris wasn’t ready to celebrate the achievement.

“No disrespect to the Knicks, but they’re a young team trying to find themselves. I think we’re supposed to do that,” Morris said of holding New York under 100 points. “When you do that to the better offensive teams, I think that’s when it will count.”

The Wizards stayed back defensively against the Thunder, often not engaging until the ball was below the 3-point arc. Against the Knicks, they extended the defensive out further on the floor. New York scored 17 points on 6 of 22 shooting (27.3 percent) in the opening period.

“Energy, man. Just came in and brought the energy from the jump, not waiting,” Kelly Oubre Jr. told NBC Sports Washington. “That’s pretty much what we have to do."

That the Knicks rallied from 77-64 with 4:01 left in the third quarter to tie the score 86-86 with 9:13 remaining eventually meant heavy minutes for Beal (40) and John Wall (38). That the two All-Stars were needed for such lengthy stretches against these Knicks sends up a warning flag. The Wizards ultimately sealed the needed win, their first since Oct. 22, with a 16-2 run fueled by a stout defensive effort.

Don't give the Wizards a pass for some of their lifeless performances this season, but it’s fair to note that entering Sunday they had the fifth toughest strength of schedule (.568). The Knicks, now 3-6, were only the second team the Wizards faced this season with a losing record as of Sunday. Another sub .500 team comes Tuesday when Washington kicks off a three-game road swing at 2-7 Dallas. Orlando (3-6) and Miami (3-5) follow.

This is no time for relaxing. The Wizards remain in a hole. At least Morris and company could exhale just a little.

“These are the games that we must take care of,” Morris said. “It was a good start. Getting a little bit of weight off our shoulder.”

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Scott Brooks practices tough love in benching, calling out Moe Wagner

Scott Brooks practices tough love in benching, calling out Moe Wagner

WASHINGTON -- Wizards head coach Scott Brooks has shown some different traits this season, now that his primary goal is player development. He has been much more willing to both bench players within games and then afterward offer harsh assessments as to why.

Second-year big man Moe Wagner got that treatment on Sunday night in the Wizards' 135-119 loss to the L.A. Clippers. After starting the game and playing 14 minutes in the first half, he played three minutes in the second half.

And during his postgame press conference, Brooks didn't mince his words when offering an explanation.

"His head wasn't in the game," Brooks said. "When you're a young player, you've gotta lock in. You have to do what we need to be done. We talked about it. We talked about it at halftime and he didn't want to do it."

Brooks has employed a similar strategy with other young players. Both Troy Brown Jr. and Rui Hachimura have been benched and then criticized publicly, albeit to different degrees.

In the past, Brooks has stopped short of publicly calling out players, particularly veterans and stars. But clearly he sees this as a tactic that can help light a fire under young players who have not yet established themselves in the NBA.

Wagner, for one, didn't take issue with Brooks' assessment.

"He's not wrong," Wagner told NBC Sports Washington. "I didn't have the energy I usually have... I think that's the biggest thing when you're young, the consistent effort and the consistency of doing your job. It's easy to do it every other night, but you have to do it every night."

Wagner's numbers weren't awful on Sunday. He had seven points and six rebounds and was 2-for-2 from three. 

But he had some head-scratching moments on defense and seemed to flop looking for fouls at times when he may have been more impactful playing within the team's defensive system.

"[I need to] do the easy things right. Just do your simple job. Don't overdo it. Don't do crazy stuff out there," Wagner said.

Wagner, 22, is playing heavy rotation minutes for the first time. Last year with the Lakers, he only appeared in 43 games and averaged 10.4 minutes per night. He is learning on the fly how to find consistency at the NBA level.

The good news for Wagner is that Brooks doesn't have much of a choice whether to play him. With Thomas Bryant out for at least a few weeks due to injury, he is the best center on the roster. 

But Brooks dropped a line that should serve as a warning to Wagner, that nothing is guaranteed, even in the situation the Wizards are currently in.

"I don't believe in doghouses, I believe in a fair house. If he doesn't do what we need, we move on to the next guy," Brooks said. 

"Everybody deserves that opportunity that works hard every day in practice. Next man up. Hopefully he will come back and be locked in against the Hornets. And he will."

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Scott Brooks, Bradley Beal rip officiating after loss to Clippers

Scott Brooks, Bradley Beal rip officiating after loss to Clippers

WASHINGTON -- Wizards head coach Scott Brooks and guard Bradley Beal have a general policy when it comes to answering questions about officiating. Usually, they avoid details because they don't want to be fined by the league. Often, they say plenty with what they leave unsaid.

Sunday night was not one of those times. After the Wizards' 135-119 loss to the Clippers, both the coach and player broke character, rolled their sleeves up and gave the refs a good old fashioned takedown.

Brooks went first and initially said (sarcastically) the officials got all the calls right in the game. After that, he said what he was really thinking.

"When they grab you and hold you and the rules are saying you've got to call a foul, that's a foul. We don't get that. [Bradley Beal] doesn't get that and it's frustrating," Brooks said.

"The rule is you can't grab a guy with two hands. It's not my rule, it's not their rule; it's the NBA rule. If they're not going to call those more, what are we going to do? We're gonna get frustrated, we're gonna get [technicals] and that's not fair. That's not fun for the coaches, that's not fun for the players, that's not fun for everybody."

Beal, who 20 points and five assists but shot 5-for-18 from the field, didn't hold back, either. And he even explained why he felt he had to speak up this time as opposed to other games when he has been more tight-lipped.

"Honestly, [my frustration] is out the roof. It really is. It's really unfair and unacceptable that they allow a lot of stuff to go on with me out there and I do not calls. Period. It's just unacceptable," he said.

"They fine us for saying something. When we do say something on the floor it's 'oh, I didn't see it' or 'it wasn't my call.' I'm just so tired of hearing that. There's three guys out here. I know nobody's perfect, but the blatant ones have to be called and they're not being called. That s--- ain't fair."

Brooks got a technical for arguing a first-half play he thought should have been a charge taken by Moe Wagner. Davis Bertans and Ish Smith, two of the Wizards' more mild-mannered players, also got T'd up.

Brooks thought Smith getting a technical embodied the evening perfectly.

"When Ish [Smith] gets a [technical foul], I know something's going on. That guys is the nicest guy on the planet. He gets a technical by just telling a referee to call it the same on the other end," Brooks said.

Beal was not assessed a technical, though he said he was appreciative of Smith and Bertans sticking up for him. He also said he feels like the lack of respect from referees has been worse this year and suggested the Wizards aren't getting the respect other teams like the Clippers do because of their 7-15 record.

To be fair, the numbers didn't exactly back up those claims on Sunday. The Wizards had 30 free throw attempts, three more than L.A. did. And Beal led all players with nine. He made all nine of them. Beal is also ninth in the NBA in free throw attempts at 7.2 per game, up from his average last season of 5.5.

This was, though, clearly something that had built over a series of games. And the Wizards are averaging the fifth-fewest free throw attempts per game this season at just 20.4 per contest. The Clippers, for comparison, are fourth in the NBA at 26.2.

But when the Wizards are in a close game with a team like the Clippers, who have way more talent than they do, it is hard for them to accept when they feel the referees aren't giving them a fair chance.

And for Brooks, it was particularly bad for Beal, whom he says "gets held all the time." And it's bad for rookie Rui Hachimura, who made all seven of his free throw attempts but should have had more if you ask his head coach.

"He attacks and he gets zero free throws. I understand nobody knows him, but we know him. That doesn't mean anything. You should be able to get to the free throw line with the way he attacks," Brooks said.

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