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Morning tip: At least 44 wins if Wizards can do this before All-Star break

Morning tip: At least 44 wins if Wizards can do this before All-Star break

At 21-19, the Wizards finally are on the verge of creating a new identity as a team that is defense-first, offensively potent and to be reckoned with beause of their home-court.

But they have 15 games left before the All-Star break to create the separation needed to give them breathing room in a muddled Eastern Conference and there are plenty of tiebreakers to be had, too.

They play the Memphis Grizzlies at Verizon Center tonight, where they've won 12 games in a row. But in the next week alone they can secure their season series with the N.Y. Knicks, take 2-0 leads over the Charlotte Hornets and Detroit Pistons and go up 2-1 vs. the Boston Celtics and Atlanta Hawks. Two of the last three games before the break are against the Indiana Pacers, who they're tied against 1-1.

A 10-5 stretch from now until the break for the Feb. 19 All-Star Game in New Orleans would put Washington at 31-24 with 27 games left in the regular-season.

If the Wizards can go no worse than 13-14 from that point, they'd finish the season 44-38, the minimum win total required for a No. 8 seed in last year's playoffs. 

Because of the shaky bench play, the Wizards have been an inconsistent road team. Reserves tend to play better at home so banking the wins now becomes more crucial.

To end the season, the Wizards have two games left with the Utah Jazz and Golden State Warriors. They have five-game road trip in early March against teams they've already beaten: Phoenix Suns, Denver Nuggets, Sacramento Kings, Portland Trail Blazers and Minnesota Timberwolves.

But it's those games out of All-Star break that will set the tone. After playing the Philadelphia 76ers are their first meetings with the Jazz, Warriors and two dates with the Toronto Raptors in less than a week.

There never are truly easy stretches, but it's all relative. Go into the All-Star break playing out of any kind of hole with that death lineup to kickstart the stretch run -- the Wizards lost 109-102 in Philadelphia minus Joel Embiid already -- puts everything in jeopardy. 

[RELATED: Kelly Oubre shows signs of development on both ends vs. Blazers]

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Film study: Wizards put forth best 48 minutes of defense this season

Film study: Wizards put forth best 48 minutes of defense this season

You can have effort and hustle on defense, but without smarts and proper communication, it's all just wasted energy. The Portland Trail Blazers aren't a good team record-wise, but they have two elite scorers in Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum who gave the Wizards fits in sweeping them last season. 

They'd recently beaten the Cleveland Cavaliers by 16 points, but the Wizards had their best defensive showing for 48 minutes of the season. 

The evidence:

The pick-and-roll action between Lillard and Mason Plumlee leaves much to be desired. Wall uses lock-and-trail technique to take away the three-point shot. Lillard gives it up to Plumlee being defended by Marcin Gortat. Markieff Morris digs in to help prevent a clean layup, forcing the ball out to Al-Farouq Aminu. Quickly, Morris jumps out to prevent the clean look by a solid three-point shooter and Gortat is behind him in support. Where Plumlee is standing during all of this, he's not a threat. As Aminu can't turn his shoulders square to the rim for a finish, he tries a pass out to Plumlee on a bad angle which makes Morris' steal an easy one.

Bradley Beal does the same on McCollum. He locks and trails around the screen from Plumlee. This technique allows the guard to recover provided he stays low, absorbs contact from screener and has support from the big to stop the ball until recovery. Unfortunately for the Blazers, Plumlee isn't a spread five. Him being this high allows Gortat double the ball and not have to vacate his spot. Beal can get the strip from behind.

Otto Porter is following Mo Harkless as he curls into the paint but doesn't allow him to turn into the rim. Lillard cuts baseline and it appears Porter is destined to collide with Wall, which creates an open look. They switch out and Lillard is forced to take a contested fade on a 6-8 small forward with long arms. This isn't a complicated play, but the kind of play earlier this season that the Wizards would defend well but not finish the possession because they'd relax thinking the play was over by stopping Harkless.

Kelly Oubre was on the ball with Lillard but gets screened off. Tomas Satoransky makes the switch, bodies up Lillard as he tries to turn the corner to the rim which slows him. Markieff Morris leaves Aminu in support to smother the ball. That's a 6-7 guard and a 6-10 big and the baseline serving as a third defender. When Lillard figures out he took it one step too deep before passing back out to Aminu, it's too late. It's a turnover. 

Meyers Leonard screens Oubre to get Lillard free vs. Gortat. Using the sideline, Gortat moves his feet and is aggressive in keeping him pinned until Oubre can recover underneath to the ball. Also see how Gortat is physical with Leonard, giving him a left stiff arm to take away any possibility that he can roll to the basket. By the time Lillard tries to shoot, the 6-7 Oubre, who has a 7-2 wingspan, is in his face to contest and it's a brick.  

Beal gets his hands out of the cookie jar, knowing Lillard likes to sweep through to force contact on his arms and draw a whistle (a smart, legal play). Anticipating he'd get that contact that never came, Lillard elevated and realized there'd be no whistle. He makes an emergency pass out to Allen Crabbe who swings it to Aminu. Also note, Oubre immediately shades Crabbe to his left hand. He doesn't dribble and finish well in that direction. Aminu goes at Morris who doesn't allow him to get to the rim or square for a decent shot. The Wizards gang rebound to get out in transition. Lillard puts up no resistance as Wall goes end to end. 

Wall stays connected to Lillard through the first screen from Jake Layman. He anticipates the pin down coming from Plumlee on the reversal and tries to go over the top, but Lillard breaks off his route and tries to cut across the lane to fill the opposite slot for a potential three. Porter switches with Wall as a result, but see what Gortat does to allow Porter to get into position. He won't allow Lillard to run freely into his spot for a catch-and-shoot. He doesn't hold him, which would be illegal, but interrupts his route. That throws off the timing and Crabbe has to send the ball back to Layman, now being covered by Wall who has to deal with a third screen set by Plumlee. He gets the strip from behind for a breakaway.

Wall hops into the ball to take away Plumlee's screen. This forces Lillard to make the read to drive away from the screen, but Gortat is there. What makes this easier – again – is Plumlee's positioning and that Lillard doesn't temper his speed. He's going too fast, rendering Plumlee a non-factor, rather than manipulating the spacing and putting pressure on the Gortat to make a decision to stop the dive or double-team the ball.  It's 1 vs. 2, a turnover and a runout for Beal.

MORE WIZARDS: AFTER BEST GAME OF CAREER, TOMAS SATORANSKY HAS HIS CONFIDENCE BACK

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Morning tip: Explaining my official media ballot for NBA All-Star starters

Morning tip: Explaining my official media ballot for NBA All-Star starters

Initially, I was against media voting. Then after seeing the early returns from the popular vote -- Zaza Pachulia being second among frontcourt players in the West and Dwyane Wade being second among guards in the East -- it felt like my duty to dismount my high horse to inject common sense into the process.

It's just one vote, and arguments can be made for other players besides the ones I choose. While Wade's popularity is understandable, why is Derrick Rose ahead of John Wall and close to overtaking Kyle Lowry? 

NBA players and select media, which account 25% each of the total to determine the starters for the Feb. 19 showcase in New Orleans, participated for the first time as the voting closed at 11:59 p.m. ET Monday. 

Fan voting, which has been reduced from 100% to 50% of the equation to determine the starters, also closed at midnight. The starters will be formally announced on Thursday.

NBA coaches will select the reserves which will be announced Jan. 26. That's seven roster spots for each conference. 

My media All-Star ballot for both conferences was submitted several days ago. Unfortunately, only weighing in on the starters is especially difficult in the East. Before calling my vote absurd, consider that Memphis Grizzlies guard Tony Allen voted for himself and Luke Babbitt. It can always be worse. 

[RELATED: Wizards wear 'Never Stop Dreaming' shirts to honor MLK]

East guards

John Wall (Wizards): There’s no other guard in the conference who is in the same zip code. Career-highs in points (22.9), assists (10.2) and steals (2.2) togo with 4.6 rebounds. And now he’s playing better defense has a team with a winning record which put him over the hump in my reasoning. That the bench has underperformed most of thes season which has prevented the Wizards from closing out more games isn't the fault of the star player. Regardless, he has them in the thick of the playoff race.

DeMar DeRozan (Raptors): The best pure scorer in the conference with a shot-making ability that's second to none. He's averaging a career-high in points (28.1) and on the second-best team. The master of the mid-range, he stands alone for now.

East frontcourt

Jimmy Butler (Bulls): With  Dwyane Wade now in Chicago, Butler has played as a small forward and posting career numbers (24.9 points, 6.8 rebounds). Like Wall, his team's lack of early success isn't because he's not exceptional at his job. 

LeBron James (Cavs): Is there any need to get into details beyond the fact that it's LeBron James? Didn't think so. 

Giannis Antetokounmpo (Bucks): Just as many of the others, he's putting up career numbers, 23.4 points, 8.8 rebounds, 5.7 assists and 1.8 steals on 53.5% shooting playing multiple positions. The only mark against him is his team's record.

A legitmate argument can be made for Kyrie Irving or Isaiah Thomas over Wall as the starter. The double-doubles, however, convinced me to go with Wall. My first draft had Wall and Thomas but there's no justification for leaving out DeRozan. Plus, I didn't think two point guards was the right call just because the conference is deep at the position. No other guards are in double digits with double-doubles. They may average a few more points than Wall, but to average what he does and still make others around him better by setting them up is harder in my opinion. Thomas is a fourth-quarter closer. Kyle Lowry is having a better season than last when he was a starter. Both are All-Stars no matter how you cut it. Irving is on the best team and he's going to get in on that alone (he's also the popular vote leader), but the Cavs don't win when he plays and LeBron James sits (winless this season when that happens). I hold that against him and would put every point guard under serious consideration above him for that reason alone. He gets too much credit for hitting the big shot in the Finals Game 7 last year or in the first meeting with Golden State this season. He needs James to be this effective. Not vice versa. I'm in the minority with this because Irving's talent is undeniable, but that's my thinking.

If I could pick reserves, mine would be Thomas, Lowry, Irving, Bradley Beal, Kevin Love, Paul George and Joel Embiid (yes, I'd take The Process on a minutes restriction over any other center).

[RELATED: Wall sees new national TV game as good sign for Wizards]

West guards

Russell Westbrook (Thunder): Averaging a triple-double at the midway point with career-highs of 30.9 points, 10.7 rebounds and 10.5 assists. He has 20 triple-doubles for the season.

James Harden (Rockets): His numbers are still there, and he's a hair shy of averaging a triple-double, too. His team is elite, and 28.4 points, a league-high 11.7 assists and 8.3 rebounds are impossible to overlook.

 

West frontcourt

Kevin Durant (Warriors): Best player on the team with the best record. His numbers haven't dipped much in his first year there, 26 points, 8.6 rebounds, 4.7 assists, 1.7 blocks and a career-low 2.3 turnovers. He's shooting a career-high 53.7% and almost 40% from three.

Anthony Davis (Pelicans): His career-highs of 29.3 points and 12.3 rebounds have turned around the season for team just a few games out of the eighth playoff spot, The Pelicans opened the season 0-8.

Kawhi Leonard (Spurs): The 24.6 points are his career-high, and his team's best defender is shooting better than 40% from three again for the team with the NBA's second-best record.

There wasn't nearly as much grief involved in voting for the starters as all of the above in the West are clear-cut more deserving. This is the one season where Mike Conley should be rewarded after not making the team because of the numbers game at point guard. He's excelling on a winning team, averaging 20 points and shooting 40% from three. Could've easily gone with Eric Gordon instead given how integral he is to the Rockets' success, but Conley has paid his dues and is an underrated two-way player.

My reserves (if I had a vote): Steph Curry, Chris Paul, Conley, Gordon Hayward, Karl-Anthony Towns, DeMarcus Cousins and Marc Gasol.

[RELATED: Michael Jenkins vents about underappreciation of John Wall]