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John Wall, Bradley Beal and defense keying Wizards’ 12-game home streak

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WASHINGTON (AP) The same fans who John Wall once joked get more excited for a free chicken sandwich when an opponent misses two free throws than a victory are now being treated to something even better: A winning streak.

Wall and the Washington Wizards have won 12 in a row at home heading into the midpoint of the NBA season and haven’t lost at Verizon Center since Dec. 6. Better starts and improved defense and bench play have sparked this run, pushed Washington to fifth place in the Eastern Conference and made home feel pretty sweet.

“We like playing on our home floor, there’s no question we have a comfort level,” coach Scott Brooks said. “The baskets, everything seems to be good for us. I think our guys are comfortable, they like playing here. We want to make this a special place. Crowd’s been great. We just got to continue to give them something that they can be proud of.”

Brooks tells his players that Wizards fans don’t expect perfection but want 48 minutes of great effort. After a disappointing .500 season last year depressed turnout, this retooled team plays a more exciting, up-and-down brand of basketball that’s worth watching.

The Wizards have eclipsed 100 points in 17 of their past 20 games with Wall on pace to set a career high in points and steals. Backcourt mate Bradley Beal is also on the way to a career-high scoring season, but he points to the other end of the floor as the reason for Washington’s success and home winning streak.

“In terms of us, it’s just been our defense and just us getting after it and playing with energy,” Beal said. “It makes everything easier on offense when we get out and run. That way we don’t necessarily have to call plays all the time, we just get out and flow, and it works. In order to do so, we have to play defense and defend, and we can’t do that if we’re always taking the ball out.”

Brooks wanted the Wizards to become a defensive-minded team that could score instead of an offensive team that defended when it felt like it. Second-year guard Kelly Oubre showed that progress with on-ball defense by locking down the Portland Trail Blazers’ Damian Lillard on Monday and said that aspect of the game is better now with more familiarity of scouting reports.

Beyond starters Wall, Beal, Otto Porter, Markieff Morris and Marcin Gortat, the second unit led by Oubre, rookie Tomas Satoransky, Trey Burke and Jason Smith is coming along.

“Guys know their roles now,” Oubre said. “We’re a solid defensive team. We’re getting better. … We have a good home-court advantage coming on now. We got 12 in a row? We’ve got to keep that rolling, man. These fans want to see wins. We’re here to give it to them.”

Wall took some heat last year for suggesting that the free fast-food chicken sandwich fans get if an opponent misses both free throws in the fourth quarter generates the most excitement. It’s oftentimes the loudest cheer of the night, but not lately thanks to the Wizards winning.

He definitely notices a difference.

“We start to win, we go to the starting lineup, the gym is kind of packed more than empty and not getting packed later on,” Wall said. “There is a lot of excitement, and it’s great to know that when they call our names they are cheering for us. It’s something we can use as an advantage.”

After the finale of this home stand Wednesday night against the Memphis Grizzlies, the Wizards play five of their next six games on the road. Their challenge now is to adapt the home winning recipe to winning in less-friendly confines.

“We have to now view it the same way, respect our opponent no matter who it is and just come out with energy knowing that the crowd is against us, nobody’s there to cheer for us,” Beal said. “It’s us against everybody. Just having that same mindset in our approach to the game is probably all we need to do.”

Spurs’ LaMarcus Aldridge nails three from one knee during warmups (VIDEO)

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Take that Stephen Curry.

Gregg Popovich would pull him so fast he’d look like a fidget spinner if he tried this in a game, but during warmups before Game 4 Monday night LaMarcus Aldridge knocked down a deep three from one knee.

If Aldridge is taking a lot of threes that’s not a good sign for the Spurs, but we’ll see if he can have a big night and keep the Spurs alive in this series.

Stephen Curry drains shots from near half court during warmups like they’re layups

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Stephen Curry‘s pregame warmups draw people into the arena early, it’s a show in and of itself.

Before Game 4 Monday night, Curry was taking a couple shots from the center-court logo. And draining them. Like layups. Because he can.

We’ll see if he can put on that kind of show when the game tips off.

Gregg Popovich makes it official: No Kawhi Leonard for Game 4

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This was expected. It still sucks to hear.

Kawhi Leonard is out for Game 4 vs. the Warriors Monday night.

Leonard has sprained his left ankle in Game 5 against the Rockets and sat out Game 6 of that series (a San Antonio win), then returned for Game 1 against the Warriors. He re-injured his ankle twice in that game — once stepping on David Lee‘s foot, once when Zaza Pachulia slid under him on a jumper and took away his landing space. Leonard left that game with his team up 23 points, but the Warriors rallied back to win Game 1 and have controlled the series ever since. Leonard has not returned to the series.

San Antonio will play with pride on Monday night, but it may not be enough. You can bet the Warriors were reminded all day about taking their foot off the gas after what happened with Cleveland Sunday.

Report: Orlando hires Toronto GM Jeff Weltman to be president of basketball operations

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In Toronto, Masai Ujiri is the head of basketball operations and the guy with the hammer on deals. Jeff Weltman was his right-hand man and team GM.

Make that was his right-hand man, Weltman has been hired by the Orlando Magic to run its basketball operations, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

The Orlando Magic have hired Toronto Raptors general manager Jeff Weltman as the franchise’s president of basketball operations, league sources told The Vertical.

Weltman met with Orlando CEO Alex Martins and ownership on Monday, finalizing a five-year deal, league sources said.

Orlando officials had been intrigued with Cleveland GM David Griffin, but moved steadily toward Weltman as they became further engaged with his candidacy in recent weeks, league sources said. Weltman has been deeply involved in every aspect of the Raptors’ front office under president Masai Ujiri as Toronto became a perennial Eastern Conference contender.

Making a move now is smart in this sense: The Magic have the No. 5 pick in this draft and would want the guy making the big picture decisions about this roster on board to make this selection.

That roster already has some quality pieces — Aaron Gordon, Evan Fournier, Nikola Vucevic, maybe Elfrid Payton — but has underachieved. There were questions about the culture and a lack of accountability, and that blame ultimately fell on GM Rob Hennigan and he was let go. Frank Vogel is locked in as

Frank Vogel is locked in as coach, so how well Weltman and Vogel work together — and share a vision — will be key.

Weltman is well-respected around the league. He spent five seasons as an assistant GM in Milwaukee, and has been with the Raptors since 2013 as that team has risen up the Eastern Conference standings and had its best run in franchise history. He also has worked with the Clippers and in Denver. He’s been one of those guys expected to get a chance in the big chair for a few years now.

He’s got it, and it’s an interesting challenge in Orlando.