November 26, 2014

The Washington Wizards have gained ground in the playoff race by capitalizing on opportunities such as facing a Cleveland Cavaliers team without LeBron James earlier this week.

Though they'll have to face James this time, the resurgent Wizards won't have to deal with Kevin Love when they visit Cleveland on Friday night seeking a season-high fifth consecutive win.

Three games out of a playoff spot at the All-Star break, Washington (30-30) has closed within a half-game of eighth-place Detroit in the Eastern Conference by winning seven of nine since returning. It's taken advantage of two meetings with NBA-worst Philadelphia and one with another non-contender in Minnesota during its streak, the club's longest since a four-game run Jan. 9-15.

The Wizards also received an assist from their former point guard Tyronn Lue in Cleveland's visit to Washington on Sunday, as the Cavaliers coach decided to rest James in a 113-99 loss in which his team trailed by 30.

Lue is giving them another break Friday - albeit a less significant one - by resting Love even though Cleveland (42-17) hasn't played since Monday. He had missed only one other game this season, Feb. 6 against New Orleans due to a bruised thigh. Love has been slumping, shooting 33.3 percent from the field in the past four games and 3 of 14 from 3-point range.

The Cavs overcame Love shooting 4 of 14 in Monday's 100-96 win over Indiana, closing on a 9-2 run to halt a two-game skid. Having James return to score 33 points in 37 minutes certainly helped as well.

''We showed some mental toughness,'' James said. "We were able to keep our composure, get some stops, make some shots and win the ballgame.''

The Cavaliers figure to be challenged again in this one, as the Wizards have averaged 108.3 points and 50.8 percent shooting in winning two of three matchups this season. John Wall in particular has given Cleveland a hard time, averaging 25.3 points and 11.7 assists in the season series.

Wall had 21 points on 8-of-11 shooting and added 13 assists Sunday. The All-Star guard was held to 14 on a 6-of-18 effort at Minnesota on Wednesday, but Washington got a huge night from its bolstered bench in a 104-98 win.

Bradley Beal scored 26 points while Alan Anderson had 18 in his fourth game back from offseason ankle surgery, helping the Wizards' reserves outscore the Timberwolves' 64-18.

Beal and Nene's returns from lengthy injury absences have improved the depth as well, as has the acquisition of Markieff Morris at the trade deadline.

''I think this year it's more the healthiest we've been. I think that's the main reason," coach Randy Wittman said of his team's surge.

Improvements on defense also have played a part in the turnaround. The Wizards have held seven of their last 10 opponents to fewer than 100 points and are 6-0 since the break when yielding 99 or less.

Washington has been much tougher in defending the 3-point shot of late, limiting teams to 29.9 percent over its 7-2 stretch. The Wizards entered the break last in 3-point percentage defense at 38.7.

They've held Cleveland to a combined 36.8 percent from the field in their two victories, though the Cavaliers won the lone matchup in which both James and Kyrie Irving played. Cleveland shot 53.9 percent in a 121-115 road win Jan. 6 with James collecting 34 points and 10 rebounds and Irving scoring 32.

Irving had 28 on Sunday and 22 against Indiana, going a combined 19 of 19 from the foul line and 5 of 10 from 3-point range.

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