Wizards take Raptors’ best shot, come out on top and in control

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3Down1toGoBy DERON SNYDER

When Wizards coach Randy Wittman talked about the difficult task of winning four games in a seven-game series, he wasn’t spouting an old coaching cliché.

He knew the Toronto Raptors would come out Friday with a sense of desperation they didn’t exhibit during the first two games at Air Canada Centre. He also remembered last season, when the Wizards returned from Chicago after winning a pair of series-opening contests and promptly dropped Game 3 at Verizon Center.

“(This) is going to be harder to play than the first two games (in Toronto),” Wittman warned prior to the Wizards’ 106-99 nail-biter in front of a frenzied sellout crowd. “It just gets that way as the series moves on.”

Moving on was at the forefront of everyone’s mind – except the Raptors – as fans streamed into the arena, where they found either a red, white or blue shirt draped over their back. But the visitors weren’t ready to face the brink of elimination just yet.

The Raptors had everything to lose, yet it was the Wizards who seemingly faced more pressure, the burden of playing as if they weren’t up 2-0. Because winning the first two games at Toronto was great, but it wouldn’t mean nearly as much if the Raptors ensured a return trip at their first opportunity.

A loss would only increase the intensity on Sunday. The scenario worked out fine against the Bulls last season, but taking unnecessary backward steps is a nerve-wracking way to make progress.

As long as Toronto kept the game close, the Wizards would be unable to relax. And the Raptors did just that, leading by two points after the first quarter and trailing by two points entering the final quarter.

“We knew they were going to come in and try to knock us out,” Wittman said. “I told the guys I’m proud that we took some punches. We stayed focused and did what we wanted to do.”

If the Wizards were going to fold they had the perfect opportunity. The crowd was pumped and had numerous opportunities to roar all night thanks to the exploits of Marcin Gortat (24 points and 13 rebounds) and John Wall (19 points and 15 assists).

But the Raptors were down by a mere three points when Paul Pierce hit a three-pointer as the shot clock expired with 16.3 seconds left in the game.

“That’s why I’m here,” Pierce mouthed to the crowd as he walked toward the opposite baseline and soaked in the adulation with arms raised overhead. “Give it to me.”

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Thus far in playoffs, ‘The Truth’ has made the Wizards free

WizNewAttitudeBy DERON SNYDER

All of the sudden, the Washington Wizards have gone from nice guys to Bad Boys II.

Clean-cut and soft-spoken figures such as Bradley Beal and Otto Porter Jr., have morphed into  snarling, flexing and trash-talking players who draw energy from boos on the road. John Wall has added another level of nastiness to his toolbox.

Nene has never been stingy with his scowls, but we’re seeing more sneers from Kevin Seraphin, too. Martin Gortat is hammering the opposition in machine-like fashion, while Drew Gooden is getting on Toronto’s nerves with his pesky ways and Ramon Sessions is proudly wearing the chip he brought to town in February.

The Wizards’ insolence was so evident in Tuesday’s 117-106 victory at Toronto, their ringleader could take a backseat and marvel at what he instigated.

“I think a lot of the stuff y’all see coming out, it’s always been there,” Paul Pierce laughed as he told reporters after the game. “I just think, I kind of manifest it to another level.”

Ain’t that the truth.

Two games into the Wizards’ second consecutive playoff appearance – and NBA history with two road victories to open postseason play in back-to-back years – Pierce has been exactly what team president Ernie Grunfeld ordered last summer. The veteran leadership and pressure-packed production in championship moments has coated the Wizards with a swagger that was nonexistent last year.

He was simply being honest before the playoffs began when he told ESPN that Toronto lacked “the ‘It’ that makes you worry.” He said the same thing about would-be second-round opponent Atlanta: “As good as they are, they just don’t give off that aura where we’re afraid of them.”

It should be noted that Washington was 0-3 against Toronto and 1-3 against Atlanta in the regular season.  The Wizards also were 1-3 against the Cavaliers, who could await in the Eastern Conference finals. But that doesn’t faze Pierce.

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Randy Wittman makes power move by putting Paul Pierce at four

PierceAtTheFourBy DERON SNYDER

Once again, it’s time to check off some items on my “TIDU List” – Things I don’t Understand:

*WHY COACH RANDY WITTMAN WAITED SO LONG.

Paul Pierce played just 4 percent of his regular-season minutes at power forward, even though he was outstanding there with the Brooklyn Nets. But in Game 1 of the Wizards’ series against Toronto, Pierce spent extended portions of his 36 minutes at the four, a key to Washington’s win. He had a game-high 20 points was 4 for 7 on threes.

Maybe Wittman’s coaching chops become sharper in the postseason.

*HOW THE CAPITALS HAVE FAILED TO CAPITALIZE.

The franchise has gone from Young Guns to Semi-Old Hammers with Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom on the marquee. But the era has little to show besides a bevy of awards for goals and points. Down two games to one against the Islanders, the Caps could face their fourth first-round exit in seven postseason trips with the dynamic duo.

Overall, this thrilling experience has been a dud.

*WHY APRIL IS SO BRUTAL FOR IAN DESMOND.

With eight errors in 13 games, the Nats’ shortstop is on pace for 100, which would be the most since Joe Sullivan (102) with the White Sox in 1893. Desmond won’t come close (his career high is 34), but he’ll be glad when May arrives. He had a stretch of eight errors in 12 games last April, a notoriously rough month for him.

At least it’s not affecting him at the bank … er, the plate.

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If you can’t compete, the more (losses) the better in NBA

D_WadeBy DERON SNYDER

And the winners are …

… the No. 9 seed in each NBA conference, who earn lottery picks instead of likely first-round beatdowns!

If my team messed up and missed the lottery,  they still could net a Giannis Adetokunbo, Kwahi Leonard or Robin Lopez at No. 15 or 16 provided the scouts are sharp. But I’d rather take my chances, slim as they might be, at gaining a Top 3 draft pick.

Top-seeded Golden State and Atlanta could lose in the opening round but you wouldn’t bet on it. There have been only five such 1-vs.-8 upsets, most recently in 2012 when Philadelphia took advantage of Derrick Rose’s absence and beat Chicago in six games.

The Miami Heat, coming off four consecutive trips to the NBA Finals, tried to scratch and claw into the postseason but missed the playoffs for the first time since 2008. That “failure” could result in a Top 10 pick, moving the franchise ahead much further than a best-of-seven series against the Hawks.

At the other end of the spectrum are teams like the New York Knicks and Philadelphia 76ers, which engaged in a season-long version of “Race to the Top” for the No. 1 pick. But the Knicks faltered and failed to keep the big picture, winning back-to-back contests recently – their first two-game win streak since Feb. 27-28 – and thereby jeopardizing their odds of having the most ping-pong balls in the draft lottery.

“I’m sure people are upset with us,’ coach Derek Fisher told reporters Monday after the Knicks beat Atlanta. “But I don’t think you can ever go out there and basically try and not play your best. Those two things don’t go together.”

In this case, winning games and improving the outlook don’t go hand-in-hand, either.

On Saturday, the Knicks owned the league’s worst record and best odds of getting the No. 1 pick; they would pick no lower than fourth. Entering Wednesday, they had an outside shot of dropping all the way to No. 6, a doomsday scenario that would mirror their season but be less rewarding.

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Wizards lofty goals, underachieving results equal unfulfilling success

ExasperatedWittmanBy DERON SNYDER

One year removed from an exciting, unexpected playoff run, the Washington Wizards are back in the same position – fifth seed in the Eastern Conference with a first-round match-up against the Chicago Bulls.

That doesn’t sound like progress. You might argue that it isn’t progress at all.

It certainly doesn’t feel like a significant stride.

The Wizards have won 46 games – two more than last year – with a shot at another pair as they close the regular season at Indianapolis on Tuesday and Cleveland on Wednesday. If they succeed in reaching 48 wins, they’ll tie the 1975-76 and 1976-77 teams for sixth-most victories in franchise history.

Big whoop.

The 46 wins represent the most victories in a season since 1978-79. One more will give Washington its winningest regular season since 1973-74.

But the success is oddly unfulfilling because more was expected. And the Wizards’ postseason prospects aren’t particularly promising.

A year ago, they advanced by roughing up the Bulls in five games, winning three times in Chicago. Then they stole the opener at top-seeded Indy in the conference semifinals, but blew the series with three losses at Verizon Center.

That experience plus the addition of wizened veteran Paul Pierce was supposed to result in noticeable improvement this season. It worked for a while. The Wizards were 28-13 at the halfway mark, boasting the East’s second-best record.

Skeptics warned that the team had gotten fat on a preponderance of home games against soft opponents. Sure enough, a swoon soon followed.

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No qualifiers needed in assessing Geno Auriemma, UConn dynasty

Geno_AuriemmaBy DERON SNYDER

You don’t have to be a women’s basketball fan to appreciate UConn and coach Geno Auriemma.

You just have to appreciate impressive accomplishments, sustained excellence and remarkable success.

The sport or level of competition doesn’t matter … unless a team’s opponents are playing a different game at a lower classification. If one squad is dominant under the same rules against peers in the same division, league or association, that team is worthy of praise. Period.

We readily acknowledge greatness on the most well-lit stages. Mike Krzyzewski is lauded at Duke like John Wooden was extolled at UCLA. Bill Belichick is celebrated in the NFL like Phil Jackson was revered in the NBA. Nick Saban has been immortalized at Alabama.

Lance Leipold doesn’t enjoy nearly the same acclaim because he coached football at Division III Wisconsin-Whitewater until leaving for Buffalo in December. But few runs are as stunning as the one he left behind: six national titles in eight seasons, a 32-game winning streak and an overall record of 109-6.

Or consider Anson Dorrance, the North Carolina women’s soccer coach who built an incomprehensible dynasty when the program was founded in 1979. All he’s done is win 21 of the 33 national titles since the NCAA began bestowing them. His career record is 625-28-20, a brisk .943 winning percentage.

Only the incredibly dim-witted and thickheaded wouldn’t consider Dorrance and Leipold – and Auriemma – among the coaching profession’s best and brightest, regardless of sport, gender or level.

Unfortunately, there’s no shortage of the incredibly dim-witted and thickheaded.

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Future is now – at least for time being – for Nats’ Michael Taylor

Mets_Nationals_Baseball.JPEG-0047c_s878x585By DERON SNYDER

Michael Taylor led off and played center field for the Nationals on Opening Day.

That’s a year ahead of schedule but he’s not complaining.

Taylor stepped in against New York Mets starter Bartolo Colon and produced a two-strike single up the middle for the Nats’ first hit. Unfortunately, only Bryce Harper joined in that column as the Washington lost the opener, 3-1, in front of a sellout crowd at Nationals Park.

The Mets were the opponent when Taylor made his major-league debut, too, but everything was different last year. On Aug. 12, Taylor played right field and batted eighth while Denard Span led off and played center as usual.

You would never know Taylor felt any nerves last summer as he singled and homered, but he said they were less noticeable Monday.

“I definitely was more comfortable out there,” Taylor said Monday after going 1-for-4 and just missing a spectacular grab at the wall on an RBI triple. “The game seemed a little faster last year. Looking in the stands was a different atmosphere, which can kind of change things a little bit.

“But I felt pretty comfortable out there today.”

He should get used it. Playing center and leading off is his probable job description next season. Span’s abdominal injury just forced the Nats ’ hand, giving Taylor a jumpstart on. Span is among several key Nats expected to be elsewhere next season, which works out fine.

The 24-year-old Taylor should be ready to assume the fulltime job by then.

Even if it turns out he isn’t ready just yet.

Ideally, Turner would’ve begun the 2015 season in Triple-A, where he has only 12 games to his credit. He could play every day at Syracuse without the pressure of performing for a team widely predicted to win the World Series. Another year of seasoning and a few hundred more at-bats away from the bright lights definitely wouldn’t hurt.

But reality held the trump card in this case and Nats manager Matt Williams wasn’t hesitant to play Taylor in the opener.

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A head vs. heart debate about Tiger playing in the Masters

TigerAtTrunkBy DERON SNYDER

My head and my heart engaged in a spirited debate after Tiger Woods played 18 holes Tuesday at Augusta National.

My glutes tried to make a point but they didn’t activate.

OK, that was a cheap shot. I really hope Woods’ inoperative rump doesn’t clench up and keep him from the Masters next week like it prompted his first-round withdrawal from the Farmers Insurance Open in February.

He took a leave of absence to repair his dreadful game and we haven’t seen him since. But his private jet was spotted in Augusta and his agent, Mark Steinberg, confirmed to USA Today that Woods flew up for a practice round. “He continues to work on the game and will advise in coming days what plan is,” Steinberg wrote in an email.

With that, my heart and head went at it.

HEART: You know what this means! Tiger is back, baby! Golf isn’t the same without him but we won’t have to worry about that next week. Count on it and don’t be surprised if there’s more. He wouldn’t bother going to Augusta nine days before the Masters unless he plans to play. And he wouldn’t play unless he intends to win.

HEAD: He should intend to contend and be happy with that. He hasn’t been a factor for a long time and there’s no good reason to believe the Masters will be different. He just fell out of the top 100 in the world rankings for the first time since 1996. Cal Ripken was still shy of Lou Gehrig’s “Iron Man” record in 1996.

HEART: Forget about whatever the numbers suggest. He’s still Tiger Woods and this is still the Masters. He owns Augusta National like no one else. He has 13 top-10 finishes – including four victories – in 17 appearances as a pro. His career scoring average is 70.86, the best among players with at least 50 starts in the Masters.

HEAD: That’s all ancient history. He hasn’t won at Augusta since 2005 and hasn’t won a major since the 2008 U.S. Open. Between injuries, a reconstructed swing and more injuries, the man has played just 47 holes this year – at 15-over par! He knows he stinks. Deep down, he probably wonders if he can regain his old form For now, he just looks old.

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Like it or not, sports is part of “real life,” like Indiana’s RFRA

FinalFourFloorBy DERON SNYDER

We use sports as a respite, a means of escape from real-life issues that can keep us awake at night.

However, although there are plenty of other forums to tackle potential third-rail topics such as politics, religion, socioeconomics, race and pop culture, our fun-and-games become a platform time and again. With good reason.

Athletes, coaches, team owners and league officials don’t live in a vacuum. Regardless of their occupations, they’re no different than cabbies and construction workers or accountants and architects. Everyone has a position when controversies swirl.

Being affiliated with sports doesn’t mean you disconnect from everything else around you.

Which brings us to Indianapolis, site of the men’s Final Four this year (and in 2021), not to mention the women’s Final Four in 2016, the annual Big Ten championship football game, the annual NFL scouting combine and a number of big-ticket affairs.

It’s a given that Kentucky, Duke, Wisconsin and Michigan State will play at Lucas Oil Stadium this weekend. But other high-profile events might consider relocating from Indiana due to the state’s new Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which apparently gives businesses the right to deny service if someone’s sexual orientation is contrary to the business owners’ religious belief.

If you think sports and politics and sports and religion shouldn’t mix, get over it. We have witnessed such correlations at least since Olympian Jesse Owens taught Adolf Hitler a lesson on false ideology 1936.

Eighty years later, the world is 80,000 times more connected. Church and state are about the only things that remain separated and even that’s a stretch.

So forget about detaching the world of sports from its social and political environs. Especially for colleges, which are charged with educating young minds and keeping them open.

“The NCAA national office and our members are deeply committee to providing an inclusive environment for all our events,” president Mark Emmert said in a statement last week. “We are especially concerned about how this legislation could affect our student-athletes and employees.

“We will work diligently to assure student-athletes competing in, and visitors attending (the Final Four) are not impacted negatively by this bill. Moving forward, we intend to closely examine the implications of this bill and how it might affect future events as well as our workforce.”

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Little League star Mo’ne Davis more impressive off the field than on it

MoneDavisBy DERON SNYDER

Nearly 20 years ago, a young athlete was predicted to have quite the impact on mankind.

“Tiger will do more than any other man in history to change the course of humanity,” Earl Woods told Sports Illustrated in 1996, after the magazine named his son Sportsman of the Year. The proud papa declared that Tiger Woods would out-do Buddha, Gandhi and Nelson Mandela because “he has a larger forum than any of them.”

Tiger hasn’t come close to reaching that far-out forecast.

Right now, you could argue that he trails a 13-year-old girl.

Mo’ne Davis is no more likely than Woods to found a major religion, lead a political revolution or win a Nobel Peace Prize. But the Little League star just taught a powerful lesson on compassion and forgiveness, done so well that grown-ups are struggling to comprehend it.

An ignoramus named Joey Casselberry, who played for Bloomsburg University’s baseball team, defamed Davis last week with a vile reference in a since-deleted tweet – “Disney is making a movie about Mo’ne Davis? WHAT A JOKE. That slut got rocked by Nevada.” That sparked a flurry of shocked and angry responses on social media, roasting him for degrading someone who has done nothing wrong since pitching a shutout in the Little League World Series and becoming a celebrity last summer.

The outrage led Casselberry to quickly apologize, tweeting “I couldn’t be more sorry about my actions … I please ask you to [f]orgive me and truly understand that I am in no way shape or form a sexist and I am a huge fan of Mo’ne. She was quite an inspiration.”

Bloomsburg University wasn’t impressed and dismissed Casselberry from the team.

Remarkably, Davis asked for forgiveness on the dolt’s behalf, emailing the school to petition for his reinstatement.

“Everyone makes mistakes, and everyone deserves a second chance,” she told ESPN. “I know he didn’t mean it in that type of way, and I know a lot of people get tired of seeing me on TV, but sometimes you’ve just gotta think about what you’re doing before you actually do it.

“It hurt on my part, but he hurt even more. If it was me, I would want to take that back. I know how hard he’s worked. Why not give him a second chance?”

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