Otto Porter Jr. shines, Wizards win fourth straight game (VIDEO)

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) If the Wizards come back from the All-Star break without missing a beat, the nation’s eyes will soon be glued to Washington, D.C.

Something special is happening in our nation’s capital – the Wizards are just five games behind the defending champion, first-place Cleveland Cavaliers, and they are playing some of the best basketball in the NBA over the past six weeks.

“I’ve never been this close to winning this many games in my career,” guard John Wall said. “Even after a bad start (to the season) – we had an opportunity and had a lot of home games and took advantage of that. We’re a team that’s playing with a lot of confidence and playing (well) on both ends of the floor.”

Wall scored 20 points and added 12 assists, Otto Porter Jr. made six 3-pointers, finished with 25 points and eight rebounds, and the Wizards won their fourth straight, 111-98 over the Indiana Pacers on Thursday night.

Washington (34-21) is 18-5 since the beginning of January. On Thursday night, the Wizards scored 100 points for the 22nd consecutive game.

Markieff Morris scored 21 points and Bradley Beal finished with 19, as each of the Wizards’ starters finished in double digits in scoring. Washington’s starters outscored Indiana’s 97-59, highlighting the lone takeaway from the Pacers’ performance on Thursday night – Indiana should be thankful its bench came to play. If not for the Pacers’ reserves tallying 39 points, the game would have been even more ugly for Indiana, which is currently in the midst of a six-game losing streak – the longest skid of the season for the Pacers.

Washington’s performance couldn’t have been any more dominant. The Wizards’ first three baskets were 3-pointers, and they ended the game having tied a team-high for 3-pointers made in a game with 15. Washington jumped out to a 14-4 lead that forced Indiana to call a timeout. The Pacers turned the ball over eight times in the first half, resulting in 15 points for the Wizards, who would lead the entire game and by as many as 19 points.

Despite Indiana creeping back into the game in the fourth quarter, cutting the Wizards’ lead to seven points, the Pacers never truly threatened. Myles Turner finished with 17 points and nine rebounds for Indiana. Paul George scored 17 points, and Jeff Teague had six points, six rebounds and five assists for Indiana (29-28).

The Pacers will return from the All-Star break and face three of the Western Conference’s top six teams in their first four games back, facing Memphis at home and then Houston and San Antonio on the road after a trip to Miami. After a seven-game winning streak was snapped by the Cavaliers on Feb. 8, the Pacers have looked incompetent at times.

“We keep showing them things we need to do to commit. We see it on tape and talk about the mindset we need to change,” Pacers coach Nate McMillan said. “It’s got to hurt when you lose a game. It’s not acceptable to let it roll off your shoulders. Tonight’s loss, we looked a little flat.”

Washington, on the other hand, is surging. The Wizards will have a similar test when they return from the All-Star break. After they face the 76ers, the Wizards will play the Jazz and the Warriors – both Western Conference playoff teams – before a home-and-home with the Eastern Conference’s fourth-place Toronto Raptors at the beginning of March.

“We knew we had to come (to Indiana) and play a good basketball game and we did,” Wizards coach Scott Brooks said. “We wanted to finish this first half strong and now it’s time to enjoy the break, come back recharged and get ready for the second half of the season.”

TOUGH STUFF: The Pacers head into the All-Star break having finished one of the toughest stretches on their schedule. The recent stretch of games would cause fits for almost every team in the NBA. During the six-game losing streak, the Pacers played the Wizards and Cavaliers twice each, Milwaukee on the second night of a back-to-back and the Spurs.

TIP-INS

Washington: Porter’s six 3-pointers were one shy of Bradley Beal’s season high by a Wizards player. … Wall recorded his 34th career game with 10 or more assists and the 35th double-double of his career.

Indiana: Is 8-21 when trailing at halftime.

UP NEXT

Wizards: Travel to Philadelphia on Feb. 24

Pacers: Host Memphis on Feb. 24

Steve Alford: LaVar Ball never meddled with UCLA Basketball

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Is LaVar Ball just a harmless loudmouth, or will he actually undermine the team that drafts his son, highly touted guard Lonzo Ball?

The Lakers, who hold the No. 2 pick, are the most likely team to find out.

President Magic Johnson said LaVar won’t affect whether they draft Lonzo, but coach Luke Walton wants the team to ask UCLA coach Steve Alford about LaVar’s involvement.

Tania Ganguli of the Los Angeles Times did just that:

Was LaVar Ball around the team much?

“Zero,” Alford said.

Was he ever at practice?

“Never at practice,” Alford said. “Never at practice; never called me.”

Did he ever try to meddle in your coaching?

“Never,” Alford said.

LaVar has said his other sons, LiAngelo and LaMelo, will play for UCLA. So, Alford has incentive to maintain a productive working relationship with LaVar. The players’ high school coach had a much worse experience dealing with LaVar.

Alford vouching for LaVar means something, but the total picture is more complex.

Still, LaVar would hardly be the first difficult parent of an NBA player. He’s just the most public. Even if he’d try to meddle into the Lakers, they might be willing to handle that to get his talented son.

John Wall: Bench was Wizards’ ‘downfall’

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John Wall left the Wizards’ season-ending loss to the Celtics talking about how badly Washington’s bench got outscored.

Now that he has time to reflect and isn’t just speaking with raw emotion shortly after a devastating loss, how does he feel?

Wall, via CSN Mid-Atlantic

“We need to help our bench,” Wall told CSN’s Chris Miller. “Just to be honest, that was our downfall in each series that we had in the [Eastern Conference] semifinals, our bench got out played.”

It starts from upstairs – just building the right bench guys and building the chemistry. That’s all it is.

I think that’s where they won the game at. I heard Marcus Smart say after the game that I had no legs. He’s basically right. I don’t make excuses. I’m going to play. If I miss shots or make shots, I’ll live with it. I know people will say he finished oh for 11, but I play – I took everything I had in me to keep fighting.

It’s just that their bench guys came in and played well. I think Kelly Oubre could’ve played a little bit more. I wish he would’ve played a little more than Jason. But coach makes the decision, and we stick behind him 100 percent. I feel like those two guys could have really helped us.

Wall – eligible for a designated-veteran-player extension but reportedly unsure about signing one – is clearly telling the Wizards what he wants. Marcin Gortat similarly criticized Washington’s bench earlier in the season, and he apologized. Wall has the leverage not to stand by his assessment.

Both Wall and Gortat were right. The Wizards’ bench was the source of much of their problems.

Washington’s starting lineup outscored opponents by 4.7 points per 100 possessions in the playoffs. Its bench (all other lineups) got outscored 15.5 points per 100 possessions.

Only the Thunder had a similar split in net rating:

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The Wizards knew their flaw and tried to hide it. Washington’s starters played 34.2 minutes per game together in the postseason – second only to the Pacers (34.5). Wall’s heavy workload contributed to him running out of gas late in Game 7 against Boston, which Marcus Smart noted.

What can the Wizards do to upgrade their bench? Spend.

They sound committed to keeping Otto Porter, a restricted free agent this summer. But that would push them near the luxury tax – so they could scrimp on the bench in a variety of ways:

  • Don’t re-sign Bojan Bogdanovic, another restricted free agent. He’s in line for a raise.
  • Trade Marcin Gortat, elevating Ian Mahinmi into the starting lineup and therefore weakening the bench.
  • Trade Jason Smith, who might be expendable at his salary (especially given Wall’s comments about not wanting him to play as much) but at least still provides depth.
  • Don’t use the mid-level exception. That’s Washington’s best mechanism for adding outside help, but it’d be costly.

Will the Wizards take any of those cost-saving measures? Wall is certainly watching.

Don’t like the wait for this year’s Finals? Here’s the top 10 plays from the last two (VIDEO)

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Que the Tom Petty

Nobody is enjoying the week-long break between the end of the Eastern Conference Finals and the start of the NBA Finals (except maybe a few of the older Cavaliers players trying to get healthy). For those of us basketball junkies, we just want to get on to the two best teams in the league battling it out.We need a fix.

Here’s the best we can do today: The top 10 plays from the last two NBA Finals, the last two Cavaliers/Warriors showdowns. Courtesy the folks at NBA.com. There’s plenty of LeBron James, Stephen Curry, and a big shot by Kyrie Irving made the list. Enjoy. And just try to be patient.

Warriors’ center Zaza Pachulia cleared to play in Game 1 of NBA Finals

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These playoffs, the Golden State Warriors have been 15.4 points per 100 possessions better when Zaza Pachulia is on the court as opposed to on the bench. That’s a bit misleading, the reason for the gaudy number is he rounds out the dominant starting lineup, which has outscored teams by 32.6 points per 100 this postseason (that is actually better than the legendary “death lineup” in these playoffs). Pachulia is just the first big in the rotation with four All-Star, powerhouse players, but he fills his role well.

Pachulia was slowed by a sore right heel against the Spurs but is 100 percent and ready to go for the Finals when they tip-off Thursday night at Oracle Arena. Here are the details via Anthony Slater of the San Jose Mercury News.

Zaza Pachulia, the only injured Warrior rotation player late in the Spurs series, has participated in all parts of all three practices, without restriction on that sore right heel. He is on track to start Game 1 of The Finals on Thursday.

“We’ve done running, had scrimmages and he’s done everything,” Mike Brown said.

He will have a crucial role on the glass against the Cavaliers. Cleveland brings two dominant rebounders to the party with Tristan Thompson and Kevin Love (plus that LeBron James guy can get some boards), the Warriors will use Pachulia to counter. Before you roll your eyes, he had 13 boards in the second meeting of these teams in the regular season, a blowout Golden State win.

He’s the first big in a rotation of them the Warriors will throw at Cleveland — JaVale McGee may get a little time, but expect a lot of small-ball lineups from the Warriors. If Pachulia can give Golden State a solid 18 minutes a night where he is strong on the glass and helps protect the rim, it will be huge for them.

Pachulia is going to get his shot, he’ll be healthy and ready to go.