Despite a wrist injury to John Wall and a painful ankle sprain for Bradley Beal, the Wizards eliminated a 10-point halftime deficit to defeat Atlanta, 104-98, in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals. Going back to last year against Chicago, Randy Wittman and Washington have now won Game 1 on the road in four straight playoff series. Wall and Beal were fantastic once again in spite of their injury scares.
In the second quarter, Wall took a hard fall and tweaked his left wrist on the landing. He appeared to be in serious pain, slapping the floor in anger. Wall stayed in the game despite clearly holding the wrist in dismay and heavily favoring his dominant right hand. A self-described warrior, Wall lived up to the part. He added another 13 assists to up his playoff leading average to 12.6. He also turned in 18 points and seven rebounds, but the Wizards actually made their big moves Sunday with other guys leading the way.
When Beal badly sprained his ankle in the second half, the Wizards immediately took a foul to tend to him. He was visibly shaken on the floor and looked so upset that one had to wonder how serious the injury could be. Combined with the image of a crying Beal limping into the locker room, Washington’s late five-point lead seemed to be doomed.
Yet the Wizards endured, holding off a furious array of offensive rebounds and three-point attempts from Atlanta to clinch the victory. Amazingly, Beal returned for the final few minutes, ensuring the Wizards wouldn’t lose focus worrying about their young star. And Beal did star on Sunday before the ankle injury. He posted a playoff career-high 28 points in 40 minutes, and the Wizards were +8 with him on the floor while they were outscored by six in Wall’s 39 minutes.
Additionally, Wittman’s new bench rotations continued to torch the opponent. Drew Gooden, Otto Porter and Ramon Sessions were all +10 or better, while only Beal had a positive differential among the starters. Gooden was awesome once again, knocking down four freebies and two triples en route to an impactful 12 points and five rebounds in just 14 minutes. Nene was scoreless in only 17 minutes as Wittman appears to be realizing the premium spacing that Gooden’s hot shooting offers the Wiz.
Porter continues to look like a legitimate NBA player. Porter played another 34 minutes and notched his first career playoff double-double with 11 boards and 10 points. His ability to comfortably play small forward in lineups with Gooden or Pierce at power forward has been monumental for Washington. Furthermore, he continues to be a sticky defender, increasing the likelihood that Washington has finally found a young wing to pair with its young guards. Sessions also held his own while the Wizards even gained ground on Atlanta when Kevin Seraphin got some time.
Of course, that should have never happened, as Mike Budenholzer curiously played Pero Antic and Kent Bazemore for far too long. Antic’s 19 minutes were somewhat understandable in light of Al Horford‘s foul trouble, but Budenholzer of all people should know not to sit your best big man with four fouls in the fourth quarter. Every minute and possession of the game counts the same. Six minutes out of Horford before he fouls out are far more valuable than sitting him until the last two or three minutes of game time to avoid it. Coach Bud soon brought Horford back and kept him in for a few minutes after he picked up his fifth, but then Bud pulled Horford for several key minutes down the stretch. The late possessions with Antic at center can make all the difference in a six-point game. Horford finished with 17 points and a whopping 17 rebounds.
Jeff Teague sprained his ankle once again in the first half and Atlanta is sorely lacking guard depth without Thabo Sefolosha. But there’s still no reason to play Bazemore 18 minutes in a close playoff game. Right now Bazemore has no ways to beat Washington offensively, even when the Wizards choose not to guard him. He can’t knock down jumpers (0-2 from distance), and he only notched two points, one rebound and zero assists. Teague perhaps couldn’t have gone more than the 34 minutes he played, but Budenholzer will have to be more willing to push his starters into the 40-minute range to close out these games.
The Hawks played well enough to win for most of the game, but they couldn’t recover when the jump shots completely stopped falling. DeMarre Carroll was a literal flame emoji before halftime with five threes and 21 points. He made only one field goal after that. The rest of the Hawks weren’t much better, especially in the fourth quarter:
The Hawks still have plenty of time to recover. Budenholzer won’t continue getting outcoached the way he did in Game 1, while the Wizards now have a couple serious injury concerns. Beal returned to the game, but he has a checkered history of leg issues and was obviously limited when he came back. The Wizards floor-spaced lineups pose a legitimate challenge, but Wittman just doesn’t have any other tricks up his sleeve. Washington isn’t a particularly deep team, and they rely on a few pretty old players to hold up their rotation. Most importantly, the Hawks won’t miss all their jumpers in most fourth quarters. Atlanta will no doubt regather itself and feel pretty good going into Game 2 on their home court.