Opening Statements: Wizards at Hawks, Game 70 | Wizards Blog Truth About

Opening Statements: Wizards at Hawks, Game 70

Updated: March 21, 2016

Teams: Wizards at Hawks
Time: 8:00 p.m. ET
Venue: Philips Arena, Atlanta, GA
Television: CSN
Radio: WNEW-FM 99.1
Spread: Hawks fav’d by 6.5 points.

This one is for all the marbles. Or at least the day’s marbles, which could mean the season’s marbles, which means that Wizards fans could soon lose their marbles.

The Wizards seem to play a back-to-back, home-and-away set with a particular opponent each season. The latest such rivalry comes against the Atlanta Hawks, the team that sent Washington fishin’ after the second round of last year’s playoffs (1). It will not be a two-games-in-two-nights set this time, however: Washington visits Atlanta tonight and the Hawks will return the favor with a visit to D.C.’s Chinatown on Wednesday. These two teams have already played once this season, a blowout 114-99 Hawks win in Atlanta on Nov. 7, 2015 (the sixth game of Washington’s season), and after these two games they’ll play once more on the final day of the NBA’s regular season (April 13 in Washington).

The Wizards can split this two-game set with Atlanta and still be OK, playoff-wise. But lose two and you can all but bury them, as well as the coaching tenure of Randy Wittman and perhaps the front office tenure of Ernie Grunfeld. Not to paint with too much hyperbole, but the marbles the Wizards are currently playing with are actually eggs.

Quick Reset: Washington is in 10th place in the East—1.5 games back of the 8-seed Chicago Bulls and 1.5 games back of 9-seed Detroit Pistons. The Bulls host the Kings tonight, a team they beat by five points in Sacramento back in early-February, and then will have 13 games left on their remaining slate, which is the 22nd-toughest in the NBA according to (i.e., Chicago hosts the Knicks on Wednesday and pays a return visit to New York this Thursday; plus they might get Pau Gasol back soon—he’s a game-time decision for the Kings game). Meanwhile, the Pistons host the Milwaukee Bucks tonight, a team Detroit holds a 2-1 series lead on so far this season. The Pistons have the 20th ranked remaining strength of schedule and will play five more home games in a row after tonight, but those games come against Orlando, Charlotte, Atlanta, Oklahoma City, and Dallas—all strong teams. Washington, to note, has the 14th-toughest slate going forward.

But the Wizards can only face the task at hand: Atlanta. The Hawks currently hold the 3-seed and sit firmly behind 1-seed Cleveland (8.5 games) and 2-seed Toronto (7.5 games); and the Hawks only have a 0.5-game advantage on the 4-seed Heat, a one-game advantage on the 5-seed Celtics, and a 1.5-game advantage on the 6-seed Hornets. There is lots of room for jockeying in the East—and we’re essentially ignoring the 7-seed Indiana Pacers, who are only two games in front of these very Washington Wizards.

As Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer will probably admit, he’ll be facing a very different Wizards team than from early-November. For one, Washington’s starting 4 that evening, Kris Humphries, is now an Atlanta Hawk—picked up after the Suns waived him and after the Wizards traded Humphries to Phoenix in the Markieff Morris deal. For two, the Wizards have Markieff Morris.

Morris most recently was found hounding Carmelo Anthony after Randy Wittman switched him to defend the Knicks star toward the end of the second quarter in Saturday’s win over New York. This, at least temporarily, backed down some Wizards critics who have been smarting since the Wizards gave up a top-9 protected pick to acquire Morris, who just turned 26 last September and is signed at $8 million per year through 2018-19. If Morris can keep his head, further develop chemistry with John Wall and teammates, spread the floor with his range-y jumper (8-37 on 3s in D.C. still isn’t ideal), and guard other stretch 4s from Carmelo to, well, Atlanta’s Paul Millsap, then in the future, the trade might be considered a savvy move that added a youngish piece to Washington’s core without them having to spend time waiting for a mid-first-round pick to develop. Yes, there are lots of ‘mights’ and ‘ifs’—particularly if the Wizards don’t make the playoffs and have to hand what would currently be the 13th overall pick this summer to the Suns.

But back on November 7, the Wizards gave up 13 made 3s to Atlanta on 33 attempts (39.4%)—it was the ninth-most makes from beyond the arc given up by Washington this season. Kent Bazemore, Atlanta’s starting 2 or 3 depending on how you perceive Kyle Korver, went 4-for-7 from deep that game, and Millsap went 3-for-6. This was also a time when Washington was hemorrhaging 3s to opponents due to a variety of factors, including the doomed-to-fail 4/5 defensive combo of Humphries and Marcin Gortat, and the lack of basketball shape of John Wall (and Bradley Beal) entering the season. Those issues have since been cleaned up with a recommitment to stopping the ball from Wall and Beal, along with tweaks in pick-and-roll defensive philosophy from the coaching staff, as well as the aforementioned acquisition of Morris.

Look, it’s not like the Wizards needed a “Paul Millsap stopper” but they really, really needed someone who could stop Paul Millsap (and other players with similar inside-outside-inside skills sets, such as Carmelo). This was one of the biggest takeaways from the 2015 playoffs in that Paul Piece could not stop Millsap (packaged with the fact that the aging Piece was a hindrance on defense overall). The Wizards previously had Trevor Ariza, who could make a go of it against anyone from Anthony to D.J. Augustin-types (remember the 2014 series versus Chicago), but Ariza was more the versatile defender who could guard down while Morris can guard up, theoretically not giving up as much on the boards when Washington must defend lineups with a sizable, stretchy scorer at the 4.

Calling Morris a “difference maker” is getting ahead of ourselves, but that’s exactly what he’s supposed to be. Don’t think that the Wizards front office, from Ted Leonsis to Ernie Grunfeld, thought long and hard before giving up a first round pick for Morris. Sure, such an acquisition partially aimed to cover already known (and previously unaddressed) roster holes—the likes of Jared Dudley and Otto Porter (and maybe in one far off galaxy, Kelly Oubre) are supposed to be able to check the Anthonys and Millsaps of the world, but that’s not always a practical use of their respective physiques. Plus, guarding great scorers at the 4 (Anthony Davis and Kevin Durant as much if not more than Millsap) often requires a defend-by-committee approach, which pays off even more when you have a larger but nimble defender like Morris, as well as rangy and smart wings like Porter and Dudley.

Will it actually pay off, or even matter? Now’s a good time to find out … who’s got the bigger marbles.


  1. The Wizards played a home-and-away set with Boston in Dec. 2014 (two games in two nights); a set with Detroit in Dec. 2013 (two games in three nights); another set with Boston in Nov. 2012 (two games in five nights); another set with Detroit in Dec. 2012 (two games in two nights); and prior to that was the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season)
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Kyle Weidie
Founder / Editor / Reporter / Writer at TAI
Kyle founded TAI in 2007 and has been weaving in and out the world of Wizards ever since, ducking WittmanFaces, jumping over G-Wiz, and avoiding stints on the DNP-Conditioning list. He has covered the Washington pro basketball team as a member of the media since 2009. Kyle lives in D.C. with his wife, loves basketball, and has no pets.