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How revamped Washington Wizards can improve playoff hopes greatly with win over Detroit Pistons

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How revamped Washington Wizards can improve playoff hopes greatly with win over Detroit Pistons

After losing five of six and making a series of trades to reshape their roster, the Washington Wizards have responded by winning two straight. Those games were against the Cleveland Cavaliers and Chicago Bulls, two of the worst the NBA hast to offer. On Monday, they will see a Detroit Pistons team that is not only better, but also currently has what the Wizards are chasing.

The Wizards take on the Pistons in Detroit with a 7 p.m. ET tip-off on NBC Sports Washington Plus.

The Pistons sit eighth in the Eastern Conference, after winning three straight games and passing the Miami Heat, who have lost two in a row, including a close one to the Warriors on Sunday. Though the Wizards are 11th in the conference, they are only two games back from a playoff spot. A victory on Monday would tie them in the win column with the three teams ahead of them.

Monday could tell us plenty about the newly shaped Wizards with Bobby Portis, Jabari Parker and Wesley Johnson in the fold. All three impressed against Cleveland and Chicago.

Whether they have enough to still compete against playoff-caliber teams, however, has yet to be proven. As much as their trade of Otto Porter Jr. can be justified, he was their second scoring option and a guy who did a lot of different things to help them win.

The stakes for Monday’s game go beyond both team’s overall records. This game will decide the head-to-head season matchup between them. They are tied at 1-1, having each won at home. The Wizards beat the Pistons by 14 points on Jan. 21.

Whoever takes Monday’s game will own the tiebreaker for playoff seeding. Having the tiebreaker over a team like Detroit could end up deciding whether the Wizards make the playoffs or not this season.

The Pistons also made some moves last week with a playoff push in mind. They traded former seventh overall pick Stanley Johnson to the Milwaukee Bucks for Thon Maker. And they signed Wayne Ellington in free agency once he was let go by the Phoenix Suns.

Maker is more of a long-term project and may not help them right away, but Ellington could make a difference immediately. He is expected to debut against the Wizards.

Ellington, 31, has long been a dangerous 3-point shooter with a career percentage of 38.0. This year, he is averaging 8.4 points while shooting 36.8 percent on 6.2 attempts per game from long range.

Offense has been the Pistons’ biggest problem this season, as they rank 23rd among NBA teams both in points and efficiency. Their defense, meanwhile, has been solid, placing ninth in points allowed and defensive rating. Ellington could give them a boost on the end of the floor where they need some help.

The Pistons’ defense will also provide a good test for the Wizards’ revamped scoring attack. With Parker and Portis making key contributions, Washington has averaged 126.5 points in their two games since the trade. The moves they made should help their offense more than anything.

The Wizards have a long road ahead to sort out their rotation and discover exactly what their chances of making the playoffs truly are. But a win on Monday would go a long way towards making those goals appear more realistic.

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Wizards' best hope for improving on defense centers around Thomas Bryant

Wizards' best hope for improving on defense centers around Thomas Bryant

The Washington Wizards were so truly terrible on the defensive end last season that they didn't discriminate towards any areas of the game.

Were they bad at defending threes? Yeah, they were 26th in the NBA in threes allowed (12.1/g) and 27th in opponent three-point percentage (37.0).

What about protecting the rim? Yeah, that too. The Wizards allowed more field goals within five feet of the rim (22.1/g) than any other team and the third-highest percentage (64.2) from that range. 

Collectively, it all added up to the 28th-ranked unit based on defensive rating (113.9), the highest in Washington franchise history. And they allowed the second-most points (116.9) of any team in the league.

The thing is, the Wizards didn't do a ton to address their defense this offseason, at least in the short-term. Though they likely set themselves up to be better down the road, most of the players they brought in who can help now aren't defensive guys.

C.J. Miles, Moe Wagner, and Davis Bertans are shooters. Rui Hachimura is known far more for his scoring than his defense. And Ish Smith and Isaiah Thomas at the point guard spot aren't exactly defensive stoppers.

If the Wizards are to improve defensively this season, even marginally, it will have to be due to players becoming better on that end than they have been in the past. And there is one player in particular who can make the biggest difference.

That would be third-year center Thomas Bryant, who has not been a plus-defensive player so far in his career but is only 22 years old. He hasn't been much of a rim protector previously, but he possesses some natural abilities that suggest he has the potential to become one. He is a high-energy player with long arms, fairly quick feet and a willingness to play through contact.

Bryant knows he holds the key to the Wizards' defensive ceiling.

"I have to be one of those guys to make a big difference. A big man can be the anchor for the defense. I have to take that responsibility to heart every day, whether it's in practice or the game," he said.

Bryant averaged 20.8 minutes per game for the Wizards, but only 0.9 blocks. His per-36 blocks average was 1.6, which was tied for 30th in the NBA. 

But for Bryant, and all big men, it's not just about blocking shots. It's about altering shots and the best rim protectors dominate in that regard. Though the stat can't be found on Basketball-Reference or NBA.com, the Wizards track it and pay close attention.

"Defensively, he definitely has to work and he has to improve," head coach Scott Brooks said of Bryant. 

"The two or three shots that players block is really good, but there are a thousand other plays that they can be in the wrong spot that they have to work on. He has to be in the right spot, protecting the paint and being in the paint to not allow guys even in there."

Bryant said altering shots has been a big point of emphasis for him leading up to the 2019-20 season. And in that process, he's trying to be more talkative on the floor to help his teammates who can't see behind them when defending guards.

"I'm starting to keep my hands up and my arms up, just verbalizing out there on the defensive end. I'm trying to be more engaged and that way my teammates are more engaged," Bryant said.

Ultimately, the Wizards will need more from everyone on their defense. One of their problems with rim protection is that guards can penetrate off the dribble too easily. By the time they meet Bryant at the rim, they have a full head of steam.

There are also, of course, way too many threes going in, and those count more. Even if Bryant became a lesser version of Rudy Gobert, he would need some help.

But no one else on the Wizards roster arguably presents the same short-term upside that Bryant does. If he figures it out on defense, it could make a world of difference for a team that needs it.

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Wizards vs. Bucks Preseason Game 4: Time, TV Channel, Live stream, how to watch

Wizards vs. Bucks Preseason Game 4: Time, TV Channel, Live stream, how to watch

The Wizards return home to the nation's capital after a one-game road trip to Madison Square Garden. Bradley Beal led with a team-high 21 points. The Bucks head to D.C. currently sitting at 3-0 so far throughout the preseason.

Here is everything you need to know.

WIZARDS vs. BUCKS PRESEASON HOW TO WATCH

What: Washington Wizards vs. Milwaukee Bucks, 2019 NBA Preseason 

Where: Capital One Arena, Washington, D.C.

When: 6:00 p.m. ET

TV Channel: The Wizards vs. Bucks preseason game will be broadcast on NBC Sports Washington (NBC Sports Channel Finder)

Live Stream: You can live stream Wizards vs. Bucks on NBC Sports Washington's live stream page and on the NBC Sports App.

Radio: Wizards Radio Network, 1500 AM

WIZARDS vs. BUCKS TV SCHEDULE

6:00 PM: Wizards vs. Bucks, NBA Preseason (LIVE)

8:30 PM: Wizards Postgame Live (LIVE)

BUCKS vs. WIZARDS INJURY REPORT:

Bucks: Eric Bledsoe (OUT, Fractured Cartilage between two of his ribs)

Wizards: John Wall (OUT, Left Achilles rehab), Isaiah Thomas (OUT, Left thumb rehab), Ian Mahinmi (OUT, Right Achilles strain)

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