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

Deandre Ayton misses coronavirus test, arrives late to underway Suns-Thunder game

Suns center Deandre Ayton
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Another testing issue for Deandre Ayton.

This one comes at a terrible time for the Suns.

Phoenix is trying to complete a longshot run to the playoffs and playing the Thunder in a key game today. But Ayton arrived late to the arena after missing a coronavirus test yesterday.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

Like many Suns, Ayton has played well in the resumption. Phoenix doesn’t have another big-man option like him, especially with Aron Baynes sidelined. The Suns started Dario Saric in a small lineup today.

Ayton arrived to the arena and is warming up on an exercise bike. He could still get into the game and make a difference.

Already locked into the 4-6 range in the Western Conference and perhaps trying to keep its top-20-protected first-round pick, Oklahoma City is playing without Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Danilo Gallinari, Steven Adams, Nerlens Noel and Dennis Schroder. None of those will players will make a late entrance into the game.

Also: It’s ridiculous this wasn’t publicly disclosed sooner. The NBA continues to tout transparency while trying to draw more gambling revenue. Yet, a major lineup issue like this remains secret? That opens the door for some bettors to get inside information, which would be so damaging to the league’s integrity.

Kings now sole owners of second-longest playoff drought in NBA history

Sacramento Kings
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The Kings’ 2018-19 season ended with optimism.

Facing a meager over/under of 25.5 wins, Sacramento surged to 39 wins – its best record in 13 years. Under Dave Joerger, the Kings played a fast and fun style. De'Aaron Fox made historic improvements. Buddy Hield broke out. Several other young players showed promise.

Sure, the Kings missed the playoffs for a 13th straight season – matching the second-longest playoff drought in NBA history. But they were on track to end the skid soon enough.

Except, of course that’s not how it went in Sacramento.

The Kings were eliminated from the postseason chase yesterday, ensuring a 14th straight season outside the playoffs. That alone is now NBA’s the second-longest-ever postseason drought, breaking a tie with the Timberwolves (2005-17). Only the Buffalo Braves/San Diego/Los Angeles Clippers’ 15-year non-playoff streak (1977-91) is longer.

Here are the longest postseason droughts in NBA history:

The Suns could still reach 10 straight years outside the playoffs, but they’re still in the race this season.

The Kings might not be far from climbing this list, either.

Their future looks far bleaker than a year ago. Sacramento fired Joerger to hire Luke Walton, who has underwhelmed. Buddy Hield signed a lucrative contract extension then had a rough season. Fox progressed, though he didn’t make the desired leap into stardom. Other young players had ups and downs. Luka Doncic casts an even larger shadow from Dallas. The Kings’ organizational turmoil continues.

This was a feel-bad season in Sacramento, anyway. All the preceding losing only adds to the misery.

The Kings enter next season with one last chance to avoid the longest playoff drought in NBA history, and they do have a chance. But there’s only pessimism now.

Damian Lillard throws pass away from basket, off Tobias Harris, into hoop (video)

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Damian Lillard was making everything yesterday.

EVERYTHING.

Lillard, who scored 51 points in the Trail Blazers’ win over the 76ers, even got a bucket on this wild pass off Tobias Harris.

Sometimes, it’s better to be lucky than good. It’s even better to be both.

LeBron James admits he’s still adjusting to playing without fans

LeBron James
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LeBron James has played to overflowing gyms and arenas since he was a sophomore in high school. There is always a crowd around him to watch him play. Or a massive crowd of reporters around him after the game. Or throngs of fans when he travels through China on a shoe tour. LeBron has always packed the house.

Until now. There are no crowds, no fans at the NBA’s restart at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando. It’s now games in a stripped-down, made-for-television gym. And LeBron admitted to reporters after the latest Lakers’ loss he is still adjusting. Via Mark Medina of the USA Today.

“I am getting more and more used to being out there. It’s a very weird dynamic. I haven’t played in an empty gym in a very, very long time,” James said following the Lakers’ 116-111 loss to the Indiana Pacers on Saturday. “It’s been a very long time since no one has been watching me play the game. I’m just trying to find that rhythm and lock in…

“I’m getting more and more comfortable playing in an empty gym,” James said. “Just having the backdrop here is a lot different from playing in a high school gym or a college arena where you’re playing in the summer time, whatever the case may be. It’s very dark, extremely dark. You can literally hear a feather hit the ground. I’m just getting more and more comfortable playing with my game here in the bubble.”

LeBron has still been very good in the bubble — 21.6 points, 9.6 rebounds, 6.4 assists a game — but he has not been quite the otherworldly, MVP candidate level player he was before the shutdown. His true shooting percentage of 51.9 at the restart is down from 57.7 before the break (and it has been below the league average since the restart). The Laker offense overall has scored less than a point per possession in the bubble and has been the worst offense in Orlando (leading to a 2-4 record so far). It’s not all LeBron, the Lakers as a team have struggled to get their pre-hiatus traction back, the chemistry is not quite right. But we know who leads this team.

LeBron and company also know they need to find that rhythm soon. They will enter the playoffs as the No. 1 seed and face and eight seed — likely Portland or Memphis — that had to battle its way into the postseason. That team, whoever it is, will come in battle-tested and motivated.

The fans will not be there to pick up LeBron and the Lakers.

“I definitely love playing in front of the fans. The fans are what make the game,” James said. “Without the fans, I wouldn’t be who I am today. To all the fans out there that come watch me play, I miss you guys and hopefully someday I can get back to that interaction.”

Someday we all hope for that.

In the short term, LeBron and the Lakers need to find their groove in a fanless world.