Bench gives Washington Wizards enough of a lift to survive Game 5 against Atlanta Hawks

It was mid-November when Wizards center said his team had “one of the worst benches in the league.”

Though you might have questioned his tact, Gortat wasn’t wrong. Through the All-Star break, Washington had the league’s third worst bench NetRtg, just behind the 27th-ranked bench of the 9-47 Brooklyn Nets.

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Upgrades came in February. The Wizards got Ian Mahinmi back from injury, traded for Bojan Bogdanovic, and signed Brandon Jennings. After the break, they had the league’s 10th best bench NetRtg.

John Wall and Bradley Beal are stars. The biggest reason the Wizards finished with a top-four record in the Eastern Conference is that their stars stayed healthy. But those stars can’t be on the floor for 48 minutes, even in the playoffs. Though Russell Westbrook doesn’t want to talk about it, the minutes that a team plays without its best player(s) can be the difference between a win and a loss. Every possession is critical.

In these playoffs, the Washington bench has again had its issues. Through the first four games of their first-round series with the Atlanta Hawks, the Wizards had been outscored by 35 points in 81 minutes with at least two reserves on the floor. Mahinmi (calf strain) has been unavailable, Bogdanovic missed 11 of his first 12 3-point attempts of the series, and Jennings got outplayed by in Game 4.

The Wizards’ starting lineup, which played 467 more minutes than any other lineup in the regular season, has led the playoffs in minutes played. It’s a very good lineup and the Wizards have the ability to keep either Wall or Beal on the floor for the entire game. They can win some games with a bad bench. In fact, they did just that in Games 1 and 2 of this series.

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That wasn’t the case in Game 5 on Wednesday, though. With the series tied 2-2, Game 5 had multiple swings and went down to the wire. The Wizards held on late for a 103-99 victory, having done just enough defensively against Paul Millsap (8-for-19 shooting) and having made just enough mid-range jumpers and floaters against a sagging Atlanta defense.

And they couldn’t have done it without critical contributions from their bench. In a game of runs, an 8-2 Wizards’ run early in the fourth quarter was huge, and it was driven by the energy of Jennings and Bogdanovic.

Depending on how many games Cleveland plays over the next month. And from the looks of it, not all that many.

“I don’t know, I’m just feeling pretty good,” James said at the end of the night. “My teammates do a great job of putting me in a good position. My coaching staff does a great job of putting me in a position to be successful. I put a lot of work into my craft and wholesale . I live with the results.”

That subdued mood broke only when a comment by Cavs coach Tyronn Lue was relayed to James. Lue had praised the defensive work of and Iman Shumpert in tackling and , the Pacers’ and the Raptors’ top scoring threats, mentioning that it unburdened James compared to past postseasons.

“You have to give cred to those guys for giving LeBron the energy to do what he’s doing,” Lue said. “When he’s able to fly around and play with the kind of pace and that kind of energy, it’s tough.”

Said James, as he smiled broadly: “I can do both.”

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Just what Toronto wants to hear. At a similar point in their conference finals matchup last year, having dropped Games 1 and 2 by a combined 50 points, the Raptors got temporarily well at Air Canada Centre. They won twice to even the series wholesale jerseys, before getting throttled by 38 and 26 in the final two games.

This time, though, it’s hard to find much foundation on which Casey’s team can build. DeRozan who averaged 27.3 points during the season, got choked off at five points on 2-of-11 shooting, the game over before his first shot dropped in the fourth. Lowry was limited to 30 minutes, suffering a left ankle sprain that cut down his mobility and easily could linger into Friday.

And the fallacy of Toronto seeing its home court as any sort of refuge this time around is, Cleveland remembers what happened there last spring, too.

Casey’s gambit Monday of swapping Norman Powell and Patrick Patterson into the starting lineup for and didn’t work – or at best, it worked backwards, with Valunciunas leading Toronto with 23 points off the bench. But the Cavs still outshot their guests, still rained 18-of-33 from the arc, still got 22 points and 11 assists from on a cockeyed shooting night.

Still has James, too, revved up, locked in and not stopping – ever – until his playoff foes in the East are with , er, eliminated.

Asked about the level of James’ play this spring relative to the past, Shumpert ran a hand over his face, smiled and shook his head, agreeing that Playoff LeBron is hitting new heights. Kevin Love spoke of James’ efficiency, though it wasn’t efficiency that left bruises on the bodies and the egos of first Indiana and now Toronto.

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Cavaliers #26 Kyle Korver Navy Blue Short Sleeve Stitched NBA JerseyThomas’ personal tragedy on the eve of the playoffs – his younger sister Chyna died in a one-car accident south of Seattle on April 15 – and his scoring prowess this spring has captured the league’s and fans’ imaginations, Lue among them.

“I had a chance to text with him a couple times when he was going through the situation with his family and his sister. Just a tough guy,” said Lue, the Cleveland Cavaliers jersey head coach. “You know, being small and always being the smaller guy playing overmatched and oversized, playing point. He’s a tough competitor, and to do what he’s doing right now throughout the course of these playoffs, having gone through a tough situation and a tough time, just shows who he is and the character he has.

“And to go out and score 53 points [Tuesday in Game 2 against Washington] on the night it’s your sister’s birthday, I mean it’s a big accomplishment and I’m just happy for him as a person.”

Lue, who turned 40 Wednesday, scored a total of 48 points in 21 playoff games spread across four postseasons. During the period, he played (1999-2009), the NBA was a slightly more rigorous challenge for undersized guys, what with hand-checking allowed until 2004 and hard contact adjudicated differently.

Thomas has taken hits, but not nearly what postseason opponents delivered a decade or two – or three – ago.

“It was tougher,” Lue said. “If you get going the way he’s been going , he comes into the lane a lot and he’s fearless, but you would get knocked down pretty hard if you keep coming. The fouls get harder and harder. Nowadays, there are flagrants. Back then there might not even be a foul.

“So it’s a different game and they changed the rules. But back then, yeah, if a guy is going like that – especially being small – going to the paint with those big guys, they were going to clobber you.”

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