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NBA Saturday: Wall Thrilled to Be in Playoff Hunt

After three rough seasons, John Wall is thrilled to finally be in the playoff hunt with the Washington Wizards … Kyle O’Quinn developing into a significant contributor for the Orlando Magic

Alex Kennedy

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Wall Thrilled to Be in Playoff Hunt

John Wall doesn’t try to hide his excitement about the 2013-14 NBA season. As the Washington Wizards find themselves on the verge of making the playoffs for the first time in Wall’s four-year NBA career, the 23-year-old is all smiles.

While the Wizards haven’t officially secured a playoff berth, they are currently in the Eastern Conference’s sixth seed at 34-31. They’re five and a half games up on the challengers for the eighth seed, and Hollinger’s NBA Playoff Odds give Washington a 100 percent chance of making the playoffs based on their simulations.

Wall realizes how close the Wizards are to achieving the goal he has set out to accomplish for the last few years, and he seems to be enjoying himself.

Shortly after the Wizards defeated the Orlando Magic in overtime on Friday night, Wall buzzes around the locker room like a hyper child. He jokes with nearby veteran Al Harrington about how much longer he’ll be in the NBA (Wall pleads for the 34-year-old to play several more years; Harrington laughs and says only if he gets to skip training camp every year). He talks trash about the upcoming NCAA Tournament, and reminisces on his dance moves that took the nation by storm while he was at Kentucky.

After winning 23 games as a rookie, 20 games as a sophomore and 29 games last year, Wall is ecstatic that the team is now competing every night and celebrating rather than sulking in the postgame locker room. When asked how much fun he is having this season, Wall lights up.

“We’re finally over 29 wins! It’s been fun,” Wall said with a smile. “But like I’ve been saying for awhile, we’re far from finalizing our playoff spot. We still have a long way to go. We still have 17 games left, I think, and if you lose 10 in a row or something like that, you could be out of the playoffs. So we’re trying to stay level-headed, we haven’t gotten locked in to a spot right now so we need to keep competing and fighting because there are a lot of great teams that are right behind us.”

Fans don’t realize how much of a toll losing takes on players, and Wall was clearly fed up with the team’s struggles in recent years. Wall, like most NBA players, grew up winning at every level. His teams were always on top or, at the very least, in contention and he was usually the best player on the floor. Going from being a perennial winner to losing 158 of 230 games over a three-year span is hard for an extremely competitive athlete.

It also leads to criticism and doubt. In recent years, Wall’s talent and leadership were questioned. Some wondered if he was a franchise player. When the Wizards decided to give Wall a maximum contract extension last summer, some critics felt that he wasn’t worth such a lucrative deal.

However, Wall responded by delivering his best season as a pro and his production has translated into success for the Wizards. He is averaging 19.6 points, 8.8 assists, 4.2 rebounds and 1.9 steals. When he runs the Wizards’ offense, he seems much more comfortable and he elevates the play of those around him. While he is still capable of outrunning everyone down the court for easy points in transition, the game has also slowed down for him, which has helped his decision-making and control. Wall leads the league in assists and ranks third in steals.

There’s no question that he’s one of the best up-and-coming point guards in the NBA, and he was named to his first All-Star team this season. Wall takes that honor very seriously, and has embraced everything that comes with that title.

“When you’re an All-Star, you have to step up and take on a bigger role,” Wall said. “That’s the situation I’m willing to accept and do and something I’ve been doing all year in being a leader. The one thing I think I proved and learned is that you don’t have to do it all by just scoring. You do it by doing different things, in playing better defense, getting your teammates involved and just having that energy that I have when I play well against those other point guards who do it on a consistent basis.”

Wall sensed that this could be a huge year for the Wizards after watching how well the team fared when he returned from injury toward the end of last season. Washington finished last year’s campaign on a strong note, beating a number of playoff squads and making people wonder how good they could’ve been had injuries not held them back.

“At the end of last year, we were fighting and we were in every game,” Wall said. “We had one of the best records in the NBA at the end of the year when everybody got healthy. So we knew what kind of team we could have this year, how good we could be. But the biggest thing for us now is just trying to get everyone healthy down the stretch to try to fight for a better playoff spot and then make a run there.”

Maturity is another area where Wall has made significant strides in recent years. Not only is he more of a vocal leader, he’s understanding what it takes for a team to be successful. Take the game against Orlando, for example. Wall struggled with his shot for much of the first half, at one point missing seven of his first eight attempts. However, he continued to impact the game, setting up plays for others, playing stifling defense, hustling up and down the court and then, late in the game, finally hitting a number of key buckets to lift the Wizards in overtime. He admits that he’s gotten much better about keeping his composure and continuing to affect a game even when things aren’t going smoothly for him.

“In the past, I probably wouldn’t have been hustling back. I would’ve been pouting and keeping my head down,” Wall admitted. “The one thing that we understand is that we have to play defense for 48 full minutes, because when we’re not hitting shots, that’s how we’re going to win games.”

Wall’s evolution into an elite point guard has certainly been the catalyst for Washington’s success, but the fact that the Wizards brought in a number of experienced veterans definitely helped the team on and off the court as well. Players like Nene, Marcin Gortat, Trevor Ariza, Martell Webster, Andre Miller, Al Harrington and Drew Gooden have been in the league for a long time and understand what teams need to do in order to realize their full potential. They have given Wall an arsenal of weapons to work with on the court, but also been invaluable for him off the court.

“They’re great and having them around makes my life so much easier,” Wall said of Washington’s veterans. “I’m always talking to those guys. To have those guys trusting in me and believing me as a young point guard in this league, it means a lot. Without those guys, I don’t think I’d be who I am today. They’re the ones who have given me this confidence and trusted me with the basketball. They’ve helped me become who I am today.”

The veterans have been just as impressed by Wall this season. Ariza and Webster, who joined the Wizards last season, rave about their floor general.

“He makes this team go,” Ariza said. “We’re going to go as far as he takes us. He makes all of the plays and he’s becoming a really good leader here. He’s been unbelievable for this team.”

“He’s grown a lot,” Webster said. “He has a competitive nature, that’s just the way that he is. When you have that competitive nature, it’s easy to get things going. It takes very little to motivate him. He accepts the challenge each and every game. He knows all of the opponent’s plays in advance, he’s calling them out. He’s a general out there. He knows things that are going to happen before they even happen and that’s big. He’s talking to us as they’re bringing the ball up the court and letting us know what they’re going to be doing. That’s big. And offensively, he’s taken his game to another level. I love his confidence, and we’re going to need that in the postseason.”

In recent years, Wall would tell anyone who would listen that his primary goal was to lead Washington to the postseason. Now, it appears he’ll be able to cross that off of his to-do list and start focusing on making noise in the playoffs and turning the Wizards into a legitimate contender in the East. If Wall’s tremendous leap forward this season is an indication of what’s to come in the next few years, it’s certainly a realistic goal.

O’Quinn Dominating on Defense | by Mary Stevens (@marypazstevens)

Orlando Magic big man Kyle O’Quinn is developing into a solid NBA player who can provide depth to a roster and impact games as a consistent defensive presence.

The 6’10 forward has turned into a shot blocking machine for the Magic in the past couple of months. He spent the first part of the season mostly on the bench, but lately he’s found himself playing a lot more minutes. Since the All-Star break, O’Quinn is averaging 20.8 minutes per game as opposed to 13.5 minutes per game before the break.

The Queens native is taking advantage of the opportunity given to him by head coach Jacque Vaughn. He set a career-high of six blocks against the Detroit Pistons in early February. A few days after that, he dished out a career-high of seven assists. He then went on to set a new career-high in rebounds against the Miami HEAT with 15 boards in early March. He is becoming a well-rounded player who can contribute to his team in a variety ways.

Offensively, O’Quinn has been working on his jump-shot throughout the season. He knows that he has to work on his strengths to get to the next level. Coach Vaughn has noticed his hard work and, as a result, O’Quinn has been in the Magic’s starting lineup for three consecutive games.

With 15 games to go in the 2013-14 season, O’Quinn has recorded 60 blocks. During his rookie year, O’Quinn tallied 26 blocks over the 56 games. He leads the Magic in rejections with 1.1 blocks per game and is tied for 30th in the NBA for most blocks this season.

“I think I’m getting pretty comfortable with the defense,” O’Quinn said of his growth. “Guys like Jameer [Nelson] and Arron [Afflalo] are constantly reminding you of the right things to do.”

When the Magic hosted the Houston Rockets recently, O’Quinn blocked Dwight Howard late in the game, which resulted in the loudest cheers of the night. That will probably be one of the most memorable moments of the season for Magic fans.

From talking to his teammates, O’Quinn has changed the way he approaches the game and it’s had a direct effect on court. He has not only become more vocal but he has also become the aggressor and a stronger defensive player.

Nelson is one of many people who has helped O’Quinn develop in the past two seasons. The veteran point guard has tried to guide O’Quinn and take him under his wing.

“He’s definitely grown in different areas,” Nelson said of O’Quinn. “I think it’s mainly his preparation before the game. He’s developing more of a professional approach. He’s starting to know gameplan situations and personnel. He wasn’t getting a lot of minutes its hard and it’s human nature not to be focused at times. He’s been more of a professional.”

O’Quinn is not a player who will take 20 shots a game, but he is a player that will make hustle plays to help his team. Numerous times he has blocked someone at one end and then outrun players on the other end.

“Now that he is playing a lot more, he is playing with a lot more confidence,” Victor Oladipo said of O’Quinn. “We have confidence in him and trust him out there. When he plays hard and he’s active he’s definitely a huge spark for us.”

Overall, O’Quinn has grown a lot since his rookie year but one thing hasn’t changed – he’s still a supportive teammate. O’Quinn is a great locker room guy and very vocal on the bench. He is arguably the funniest guy on the team and he’s always in good spirits. He’s usually the first guy off the bench and the first guy to congratulate his teammates when they do something good.

O’Quinn, like most of his teammates, is young and looking to improve. Orlando’s young core continues to progress, but they’re still trying to find their way in the NBA. The Magic are a very young team; 10 of their 14 players are between 20-24 years old. Most of the guys are constantly hanging out, which has resulted in great chemistry on-and-off the court.

At 24 years old, O’Quinn has come a long way since high school. He didn’t start playing basketball until later in his high school days. Upon graduation, Norfolk State was the only school to give him a free ride.  He made the best of that situation and was drafted in the second round by the Magic in 2012.

O’Quinn and his beard will remain in Orlando for the 2014-15 unless the Magic waive him before July 15, 2014.

Mary Stevens is a guest contributor for Basketball Insiders. You can follow Stevens on Twitter here and read more of her work on sportstalkflorida.com.

Alex Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Basketball Insiders and this is his 10th season covering the NBA. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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Mavs Guard Devin Harris on Personal Leave from Team

Basketball Insiders

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Guard Devin Harris will take an indefinite leave from the Dallas Mavericks after the tragic death of his brother, Bruce.

“I was with him yesterday and just encouraged him that when he’s ready to come on back,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “I don’t know when that will be. He can take as long as he needs.”

Source: Tim MacMahon of ESPN

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NBA PM: Patrick Beverley Set the Tone for Clippers in Season Opener

Patrick Beverley set the tone for the L.A. Clippers with his aggressive defense in their season opener.

Jesse Blancarte

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“The LA Clippers are going to the Western Conference Finals. Guaranteed.”

That bold statement was made by Charles Barkley during TNT’s coverage of last night’s matchup between the Lakers and Clippers.

While Barkley may have had his hot take canon primed and in mid-season form, that should not overshadow the fact that the Los Angeles Clippers put together a strong showing in their first regular season game since the departure of Chris Paul.

Blake Griffin logged 29 points, 12 rebounds, three assists, two steals and knocked down three of his six three-point attempts. Griffin was aggressive and showed no hesitation on his jumper, which seemed to open up lanes for him to drive to the basket (where he is most effective). DeAndre Jordan was fantastic as well, contributing 14 points, 24 rebounds, one assist and one steal.

While the Clippers lost some significant contributors from last season, including J.J. Redick, Luc Mbah a Moute and Jamal Crawford, the team had some returning and new players show that they are capable of filling the void.

Milos Teodosic was just 2-9 from the field, but knocked down two three-pointers and looked comfortable and effective running the team’s offense. Danilo Gallinarni shot just 3-13 from the field but looked healthy and spry, displaying the kind of mobility that is necessary to play the small forward position. His ability to act as a secondary playmaker wasn’t on full display, but there were moments where it was apparent that he could be a big help in generating open looks for his teammates. Lou Williams also looked good in his Clippers debut, scoring in a variety of ways off the bench and contributing six assists as well. Wesley Johnson continues to look confident and aggressive, a continuation from his preseason performances, and is starting to knock down the open shots his teammates are creating for him (which has been a problem for him in the past).

While the Clippers looked solid in their opening act without Paul, it should be noted that the Lakers are a young team overall and their defense has been a major problem for the last few seasons. While the Lakers have added some promising young talent over the offseason, like most young teams, they are going to struggle to slow down veteran teams with potent offenses. It would be a mistake to think the Clippers can replicate this sort of offensive performance every night, especially against the better defensive teams in the league. However, perhaps the most promising part of the Clippers’ season debut was the fact that they seemed to feed off of and embrace the gritty demeanor and style of play that Patrick Beverley brings to the court each and every night.

Last night’s game was the NBA debut for rookie point guard Lonzo Ball, who many predict will develop into a star player. Unfortunately for Ball, his opening night matchup came against Beverley, who earned a spot on the 2017 All-Defensive First Team. Beverley repeatedly guarded Ball past half court, pushed him around and did everything he could to throw him off of his game. He held Ball to three points, nine rebounds and four assists in 29 minutes of action.

Beverley, like every NBA player, has heard the hype and noise surrounding Ball and his future in the league (most of it from his outspoken father, LaVar).

“I just had to set the tone,” Beverley said. “I told him after the game that due to all the riffraff his dad brings, that he’s going to get a lot of people coming at him. I let him know that after the game. What a better way to start than spending 94 feet guarding him tonight — welcome the young guy to the NBA.”

Beverley is one of the more aggressive defenders in the NBA and is known for trying to get under the skin of his opponents, so Lonzo may not face this level of intensity in every game. But based on Beverley’s comments, it’s clear that he expects other players around the league to defend Lonzo aggressively as well.

Snoop Dogg, the rapper and passionate Lakers fan, summed up the issue for Ball arguably better than anyone else has so far.

“His father put him in the lion’s den with pork chop drawers on,” said Snoop.

For his part, Lonzo complimented Beverley on his aggressive defense.

“[Beverley] plays hard. He knows his job. He does it very well,” said Ball. “He gets under people’s skin and plays defense and does what he can to help his team win.”

Beverley set the tone for the Clippers, who looked crisp and confident throughout the game. Griffin’s three-point shot looks like it could finally be a reliable part of his offensive arsenal. Jordan was very active on the glass, pulling down 24 rebounds (possibly inspired in part by his commitment to donate $100 per rebound this season to help the effort to rebuild his hometown of Houston after the damage inflicted by Hurricane Harvey). The rest of the supporting cast played with the sort of cohesion and confidence that takes at least a few weeks into the season to develop. Again, the Clippers’ performance could have stemmed primarily from the Lakers’ shaky defense, but it was encouraging to see the team play with such force and confidence in the absence of Paul.

The Western Conference is extremely talented and deep, so it’s unlikely that the Clippers will make it to the Western Conference Finals as Barkley predicted. However, challenging for a spot in the playoffs and perhaps even doing some damage once there seems to be in the realm of possibility. This is especially the case considering how much of an impact Beverley had Thursday night, both defensively and in setting the tone for the rest of his new teammates.

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Morris Bringing Leadership To Celtics

Marcus Morris chats with Basketball Insiders for a one-on-one exclusive.

Spencer Davies

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Returning just one starter from last year’s top-seeded team in the Eastern Conference, the Boston Celtics underwent wholesale changes this past offseason.

Gordon Hayward signed a super max contract. Danny Ainge pried Kyrie Irving away from the Cleveland Cavaliers in a blockbuster deal. Jayson Tatum was selected with the third overall pick in the NBA Draft.

In early July, though, there was an under-the-radar trade executed that hasn’t been mentioned much. Surprisingly, Celtics guard Avery Bradley was sent to the Detroit Pistons in exchange for Marcus Morris, a heady wing with size and versatility to add to a revamped core of players.

Bradley was a mainstay with the franchise for seven years and played a vital role as a part of Brad Stevens’ system, but Boston decided to move in a different direction. As for the man they got in return, he’s thrilled to be there.

“It makes me feel good,” Morris told Basketball Insiders of Ainge dealing one of his best former players for him. “It makes you feel wanted.

“This is my first time since I’ve been in the NBA I’ve been on a team with a bunch of guys that [are] All-Stars. With the maturity of the team being this high and having them high expectations on us, I’m excited to get the season going and see how far we can take this.”

The Detroit Pistons likely wanted to keep him, but the organization clearly felt Bradley’s skill set was too good to pass up. For Morris, he insisted there was no indication that his old team would send him away, but he hasn’t been bashful about talking up his new home.

“Had no idea that I was gonna be a Boston Celtic, but I’m ready for the challenge, you know?” Morris said. “I’m excited. Boston, being a Celtic—it’s something that growing up you don’t really see happening, but when it happens it’s an amazing thing.

“It’s like playing for the Patriots, you know what I mean? One of the most heralded teams and most heralded franchises, and Boston is one of those.”

Entering the seventh season of his career, Morris has remained a steady part of the league. During his time in Detroit, he started nearly every game for the Pistons and found a comfort zone that he believes will carry over in Boston.

“Just continue to be consistent, continue to build on my last past couple of years,” Morris said of his personal goals. “I really felt like I carved my spot in the NBA the last two years—averaging 14 a year and helping my team get to the playoffs one of those years, so I really think I’ve carved a niche in this league.”

The success has come thanks to his versatility and the NBA’s current direction pointing towards that type of game. All of a sudden, not having a defined position makes a player more valuable, something Morris is thankful for as he continues to bring a little bit of everything to the table.

“For guys like me, it’s great,” Morris said. “Coming into the league, I had this ‘tweener’ thing on my back and now it’s like [freaking] great to be a ‘tweener’ at this time. I’m actually happy that it’s switching to my position and guys that can do multiple things are being utilized more in this league.”

Putting the ball in the basket has come fairly easy for Morris, who averaged 14.1 points per game on 42.6 percent from the field over 159 games with Detroit. He’s able to stretch the floor and provide solid spacing offensively, and he envisions doing more than that for this Celtics group.

“And leadership,” Morris said. “I’m not too much of a vocal guy, but I’m a passionate guy on the court. I think that’ll rub off on guys. I love scoring. I love shooting the ball. But that’s not the only thing I do.

“I’ve been a tough defender around this league for the last past years and I’m really looking forward to hanging my hat on that again and just doing whatever it takes for my team to get to that next level.”

Stevens is aware of the impact Morris can bring in the locker room and on the floor. When he returns from a sore knee to make his debut for Boston, that’ll show through his play.

“He’s a guy that can stretch the floor at the four,” Stevens said. “He’s a guy that can guard two through four. He’s tough. He’s smart. He works the right way. We’ll be better with Marcus Morris for sure. The versatility is a very important part of what we want to be.

“Whether he is starting in a couple of weeks or whether he’s coming off the bench, at the end of the day he’s gonna be a critical, critical part of our team.”

While he’s waited to come back, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum have stepped up in his absence. With Hayward likely sidelined for the rest of the season, that success will have to be sustained. Morris is a big believer in this promising duo and sees how grounded they are to make that happen.

“They’re mature guys for their age,” Morris said. “Jaylen, I think he’s 20. He’s definitely a lot more mature than I thought. Jayson, too. He’s way more mature than your average 19-year-old.

“At the end of the day, it’s just basketball. I think those guys, they’re ready for the challenge. They love the game. They always in the gym, so I think it’ll be easy for ‘em.”

Part of Morris’ role is guiding those two and the other younger pieces that Boston has as they try and establish themselves as professionals. He’s kind of a coach per se, which is somewhat fitting considering what he did this summer.

Most basketball fans are aware of “The Basketball Tournament” that takes nationwide. For those that aren’t, it’s a single-elimination competition between 64 teams in which the champion receives a $2 million prize. Morris was the head coach of Team FOE—standing for Family Over Everything.

Along with his fellow Kansas alums, including his brother Markieff and Thomas Robinson, Morris coached his team to the final game. Team FOE was in front most of the game but ultimately fell to Boeheim’s Army, a squad filled with former Syracuse Orangemen.

“I was on my way man,” Morris said of coming close. “I actually liked it. I’m a smart guy. Me and basketball stuff, I can put it together real well. I was kinda upset we lost in the fashion that we lost, but we’ll be back next year.

“I’m a smart player,” he said regarding a potential future on the sidelines. “I know the game really well. Coaching comes easy for some guys and I’m just one of those guys.”

You could hear “Coach Morris” down the line, but for now and for years to come, Marcus is focused on his first year with Boston. It’s a team that surely has the talent to be the top team in the East it’s pegged to be. Stevens is a basketball savant with great leadership.

Even without an All-Star like Hayward and a 0-2 start, the Celtics should still be a force to be reckoned with. There’s an even greater demand for them to achieve their potential, especially knowing eyes will be on them, but Morris welcomes the challenge.

“Man, it’s pressure on every team,” Morris said. “It ain’t like it’s just all on the Boston Celtics. It’s pressure on every team. What’s a game without pressure anyway?

“Pressure makes it the best thing. That’s what we need to do anyway. I enjoy the pressure. Me personally.”

Shouldering the load won’t be easy, but if it comes down to it, Morris will be swimming instead of sinking. When all is said and done, he shares the same aspirations as most players do—raising the Larry O’Brien trophy in the summer.

“I want to the win the championship,” Morris said. “You put this type of team together to get to those positions. I’m looking to be playing in June and trying to get to a championship.”

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