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

Giannis Antetokounmpo out a couple of games to manage sore knee

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It’s not discussed much, but Giannis Antetokounmpo has a chronically sore knee that has been an issue since last summer. It’s not debilitating, it doesn’t require surgery, but it’s something Antetokounmpo and the Bucks need to actively manage.

Hence, Antetokounmpo is sitting out the next couple of games. From Matt Velazquez of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

Milwaukee Bucks all-star Giannis Antetokounmpo will sit out Saturday night’s game against the Philadelphia 76ers as well as Monday’s home game against the Phoenix Suns as the team actively manages the health of Antetokounmpo’s sore right knee….

Antetokounmpo’s injury, which is not considered to be tendinitis, is regarded as something that is always going to bother him to some extent, according to a league source. There will be days where the discomfort is higher and some when it’s lower, and the team’s goal is to manage that on a daily basis to keep the injury from becoming severe or significant — something it is not considered to be at this point.

Antetokounmpo is going to get eight days of rest this way, which is the smart long-term move for the Bucks.

The challenge is the Bucks may be sixth in the East as you read this, but they are just one game up on the nine seed Pistons. They need to get wins without Antetokounmpo, which is hard because they have been outscored by 10.6 points per 100 possessions. However, they could be without him a lot longer if Antetokounmpo’s knee isn’t managed now.

Kristaps Porzingis: “Players know” he’s All-Star starter

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When picking the East All-Star starters, two of the three frontcourt choices were obvious: LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo.

For the third slot there were a few players who could make a case. The fans chose Joel Embiid third, Kristaps Porzingis fourth, and Kevin Love fifth. The media also had Embiid third and Porzingis fourth, but Al Horford fifth. That was enough to earn Embiid the starting nod.

The players voted Porzingis third, Embiid fourth, and Andre Drummond fifth. Needless to say, Porzingis thinks the players got it right, as he told Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News.

“Players know,” he said. “That’s all I’m going to say.”

If one were cynical, one would note the players also voted for Tyler Cavanaugh and Tyler Zeller, so how much do we trust their vote? Fortunately, we’re above such crass things.

Porzingis is a lock to make his first All-Star Game this year as a reserve (picked by the coaches).

What separated the two? Embiid has been a little more efficient this season, he’s stronger on the boards and had been a bigger defensive presence. Also, the Sixers have a better record than the Knicks, who have stumbled of late. Or, maybe the fans just like Embiid’s big personality more — he’s blowing off Rihanna.

Both of these guys should have a lot of All-Star starts in their future. This year it goes to Embiid.

 

Lakers make 14% of their free throws, win

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Jordan Clarkson‘s free throw rattled around the rim before falling out late in the first quarter. The Los Angeles crowd groaned. The Lakers missed their first five free throws, and the visiting Pacers led by seven.

It appeared to be one of those nights.

And it was. The Lakers shot just 2-for-14 (14%) on free throws Friday. But they still won, 99-86.

That’s the worst free-throw percentage with at least eight attempts by any team and the worst free-throw percentage regardless of attempts by a winning team in the Basketball-Reference database, which dates back to 1963-64.

Here’s the “leaderboard,” winners in purple and losers in gold:

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The Lakers are shooting an NBA-worst 69% on free throws, but last night took the cake. The offenders:

Knicks’ Jeff Hornacek brushes off concerns about job security

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We saw this pattern earlier this season with the Lakers. Young team gets off to a better-than-expected start, shows real promise, but as things move toward the middle of the season they take a step back. As happens with young, developing teams, they are up and down. However, major market media and an impatient fan base wants to blame someone, so the coach is suddenly discussed as having “lost the locker room” and that his job was in jeopardy (a coach not hired by the current GM). Even though in Luke Walton’s case, it wasn’t (and isn’t).

Now that same pattern has come to New York and the Knicks with Jeff Hornacek. The Knicks started 17-14 and had fans prematurely thinking playoffs thanks to a home-heavy schedule. Reality has hit them the past month.

Hornacek tried to brush off questions about his job security in New York, speaking to Stefan Bondy of the New York Post.

Hornacek also believes he has the backing of GM Scott Perry and president Steve Mills, despite being inherited by them as Phil Jackson’s hire.

“We were talking about rebuilding and we got off to a good start because we had a lot of home games,” Hornacek said. “Scott and Steve, everybody’s still on the same page of trying to get our young guys opportunities. We’re still trying to win games. We still want to establish an identity where defensively we’re going to get after it all the time and we’re building toward that. It’s great to have their support…

“I think the expectations come from the players where all of a sudden you hear them talking about, ‘Oh we can make the playoffs.’ We never said that,” Hornacek said. “We said we want to get better and we want to grow. Part of our talk was you can’t worry about the results. You just got to go out there and if you do your best and try to improve the results will come. When you start thinking about win or lose all of a sudden your mentality becomes different. We got to get back to that.”

Is Hornacek the long-term answer in New York? I don’t know. However, finally unchained from the pseudo-triangle disaster Phil Jackson imposed, he has done a solid job this season, putting Kristaps Porzingis in better spots to lead this roster. The Knicks are projected to win around 38 games at this point (according to Cleaning the Glass), and they have about a 14 percent chance of making the playoffs still (according to fivethiryeight.com). Heading into the season, that would have been about anyone’s best-case scenario for this team.

Not that it matters when you’re coach of the Knicks — job security speculation comes with every paycheck. It just isn’t deserved in this case.