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Hawks-Wizards Series Preview: Atlanta Looks to Regain Form Against Red-Hot Wizards

The Atlanta Hawks and Washington Wizards enter the second round with dramatically different paths taken to get there. The Hawks won 19 straight and 40 of their first 48 to more or less lock up the conference’s top seed by the end of January. They stumbled a bit down the stretch, but rest, nagging injuries and complacency were considered the true culprit of their slippage, and the Hawks still netted 60 wins. After an ugly six-game battle with the hapless Brooklyn Nets, most NBA observers are now fully skeptical of the Hawks.

The Wizards, on the other hand, had a relatively good start of their own but a longer and more significant period of declining play. While Atlanta still rated out as an elite team at season’s end, the Wizards looked more like a playoffs one and done–and only because the Eastern Conference is a wasteland. Newly minted master strategist Randy Wittman and the Wiz proceeded to ride small ball lineups and the breakout play of Otto Porter to a dominant four-game sweep of the Raptors. Initially considered a minor road block on the path to the Conference Finals for the Hawks, the Wizards now pose a very real challenge.

Atlanta Hawks First Round: 4-2 over Brooklyn Nets

The Hawks took a solid 2-0 start at home against Brooklyn, but both games were unnervingly close. Atlanta pulled away late in Game 1 on the back of Kyle Korver‘s dagger threes, but the Nets played poorly and still had their chances. Brook Lopez only got seven shots (he made six) while Joe Johnson led Brooklyn to 5-of-20 from distance by missing all six of his attempts. Atlanta closed out Game 2 as well, but still only won by five with all non-Lopez Nets starters combining to shoot 11-of-39. As far as 2-0 leads go, this was a shaky one.

Brooklyn responded by claiming the next two victories at the Barclays Center. Atlanta never really recovered from a hefty 31-16 first-quarter deficit in Game 3, losing by eight. Thaddeus Young dominated the Hawks’ frontcourt as Paul Millsap and Al Horford struggled through injuries. The two All-Stars combined to shoot 10-of-30 in the game and the Hawks were outscored by 14 points with Horford on the floor. Game 4 was a wild overtime affair taken 120-115 by the Nets that saw Alan Anderson and Brooklyn’s other reserves smoke the Hawks’ bench. Suddenly, the deepest team in the East had no depth. With Thabo Sefolosha lost to possible police brutality, of all things, Kent Bazemore and Dennis Schroder have gotten smoked.

Atlanta recovered to take Games 5 and 6 by a combined 34 points, but the 38-44 Nets had no business winning a playoff game this year. The first round illuminated Atlanta’s very real shortcomings: the aforementioned sudden lack of depth and the ensuing over-reliance on their All-Stars. Both Horford and Millsap should be fine for Round 2, but their poor play against Brooklyn was the biggest detriment to Atlanta. Millsap in particular doesn’t seem to have fully gotten past his late-season shoulder injury on offense.

X-Factor: The Frontcourt

Al Horford and Paul Millsap struggled at times in Round 1, but they pose a highly difficult matchup for the Wizards. Washington had a terrible offense in the regular season, riding a steady diet of mid-range jumpers that defenses loved to yield. While the Raptors predictably allowed lots and lots of open looks and free paths to the rim, the Hawks run an intense system that’s much tougher to beat.

Atlanta systematically “ices” pick-and-rolls to the sidelines, giving a point guard two options: drive straight into the big man walling off the baseline, or pass back to the screener for a pick-and-pop. This either results in a long jumper from a big man or a very difficult drive for the point guard. Tom Thibodeau pioneered this philosophy for the Celtics, and later the Bulls, before it spread like wildfire, but it’s specifically designed to force offenses into open mid-range jumpers. Of course, the game is always evolving, and long-range shooting from the power-forward position has become the NBA’s premium skill for a reason. A big who can pop out behind the three-point line now holds the potential to finish a possession efficiently off an “iced” pick-and-roll.

The series could come down to John Wall vs. Horford and Millsap’s defense on these plays. Teague and the bigs will have their hands full each time Wall runs a play. Give him an inch too much and Wall will sneak around the baseline for an easy layup; defend too closely and Wall will find the Wizards’ new stretch 4’s for killer threes. Assuming Wittman sticks with his new rotations, Horford and Millsap will have to perfectly balance the positioning between containing Wall and closing out on open threes. They’re up for the challenge.

Washington Wizards First Round: 4-0 over Toronto Raptors

The Wizards came, they saw, they conquered. Sure, the Raptors were a spectacular schadenfreude-laden time bomb that was tick-tick-ticking, but Randy Wittman and the Wizards took no half measures in their efficient dismantling of perhaps the entire core of the Toronto franchise. Potentially playing possum all season, Wittman dusted off the small ball lineups with Paul Pierce at power forward for significant minutes in each game in the series. Pierce only logged 120 minutes at the 4 during the regular season.

On top of that, Wittman reduced Pierce’s playing time down the stretch while quietly ramping Otto Porter up to 30-plus minutes a night in April. While the local and national attention was focused on the seemingly fledgling Wizards, Wittman was preparing his team for a massive rotation and philosophical change come playoffs time. Is it possible the embattled coach just lucked into these pivotal changes at the perfect time? Of course! But the rapidness and critical timing of the moves have earned Wittman major props and some deserved respect.

John Wall was spectacular against Toronto, averaging 12.5 assists in the sweep. Chris Paul is second in playoff assists at 8.2 a game while Atlanta’s Jeff Teague is third with 7.8. Wall ran circles around the Raptors and Bradley Beal had himself a series as well. He averaged 20.8 points, 5.3 rebounds and 4.0 assists and finally looks to be healthy–for now. Marcin Gortat made nearly 80 percent of his shots against Toronto’s woeful defensive frontcourt, and Nene‘s minutes were smartly limited to emphasize the small ball lineups and take advantage of Drew Gooden‘s new-found stroke from deep.

IT-Factor: Paul Pierce

Pierce single-handedly shouldered the pressure of the playoffs with his legendary interview with Jackie MacMullan last month. He backed up his talk too, knocking down a scorching 58.3 percent of his triples against the Raptors. Pierce’s eruption from the power-forward spot should be no surprise to anyone who followed the Brooklyn Nets last season. Dead in the water, they found new life when Pierce moved almost permanently down to the 4, and he was key in their first-round victory over the Raptors. The Wizards brought Pierce in to replace Trevor Ariza at small forward, but Wittman’s deterrence to going small in the regular season was highly puzzling.

For the Raptors, it must have felt like deja vu. Pierce shredded their defense from deep and the ensuing floor spacing gave Wall and Beal wide open driving lanes and shots. The Hawks’ frontcourt will pose a legitimate challenge to these lineups, but Pierce also loves shooting with a man closing out on him. Horford and Millsap’s challenge has been laid out already, but Pierce’s big test will actually come on the defensive end as well.

At power forward, Pierce must defend Millsap. While Millsap has great range, he also loves to work in the post. The Hawks are smart and so is Millsap; he’ll try and demolish Pierce on the blocks in order to neutralize the effectiveness of Washington’s small lineups. In Round 1, it appeared that Millsap was favoring his less effective left hand on post-ups because of his right shoulder issue. If Millsap can get past that, Pierce will have a mighty task holding ground in the post.

Without Pierce, Washington’s small ball lineups rely on Drew Gooden. He has been fantastic shooting from deep (7-of-14 against Toronto), but Gooden will presumably get demolished defensively by Millsap. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Wittman use more Nene and Gortat lineups to combat Atlanta’s All-Star frontcourt. Pierce holding his own at the 4 could be the key to stealing the series for Washington.

The Pick

The Hawks won the season series 3-1, and the only game they lost to Washington featured exactly none of their starters. While Washington looked like a far more dominant team than Atlanta in Round 1, they oddly might have had the weaker opponent. Toronto was far superior to Brooklyn this season, but Kyle Lowry was decimated and the Raptors had been playing poorly for months. The Nets are rightfully a punchline to many around the league, but they staged an impressive campaign to sneak into the playoffs.

Atlanta in many ways didn’t have a high pressure game from February until the playoffs, give or take a marquee matchup with Golden State. The deceivingly close 2-0 lead they took vs. Brooklyn obscured the bigger issues at play, but dominant wins to close the Nets out has Atlanta feeling more like itself:

Atlanta has favorable matchups with Washington in too many ways to back the Wizards. It feels like there’s a combination of rotations and strategy that can yield the upset for Washington, but it seems unlikely Randy Wittman finds it in time. It’ll be fascinating to watch the new-look Wizards try and crack the Atlanta Hawks, but Coach of the Year Mike Budenholzer will be prepared to counter Wittman.

Hawks in 6

 

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