Dwight Howard is the New Carlos Boozer, and Other Wizards-Hawks Observations
[Dwight Howard makes himself small before getting blocked
by Marcin Gortat in first quarter of Game 2.
Photo – screenshot from nba.com]
Three years ago, the Washington Wizards easily dispatched the Chicago Bulls in the first round of the playoffs. Most of the credit went to breakout performances from John Wall and Bradley Beal and Nene’s dominance over Joakim Noah. But the Wizards’ victory could just as easily be attributed to a stubborn decision by Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau.
Early in the series it became apparent that 32-year old Carlos Boozer was a liability. Chicago began every game with a first quarter deficit and played markedly better as soon as Taj Gibson subbed in.
Whereas Boozer could not score (42.6% FG) and was cemented to the floor on defense, Taj was virtually unstoppable in the low post (18.2 points per game on 56.1% shooting) and he averaged 2.4 blocks. Chicago scored an astounding 123 points per 100 possessions during Gibson’s 30.7 minutes per game and plummeted to only 94 points per 100 possessions during Boozer’s 24.2 minutes of playing time.
Nevertheless, Thibodeau refused to adjust his starting lineup despite the fact that he appeared to recognize Taj was the superior player. Thibodeau would start Boozer every game then bench him in the second quarter. Then, as if he forgot everything he saw in the first half, Thibodeau would start Boozer again in the third quarter then bench him again in the fourth. This continued over and over again for five games. It was like an NBA re-make of 50 First Dates.
It appears we may be on the verge of a similar romantic comedy starring Dwight Howard in the Atlanta-Washington first round series.
The Hawks are a worse team when Dwight Howard is on the court. This is true for at least the following two reasons:
#1) On defense, Howard cannot — or simply refuses to — step up and contest perimeter shots in the pick-and-roll. Instead, he sits in the middle of the paint, allowing uncontested 15-footer after uncontested 15-footer. That is a recipe for disaster against Bradley Beal.
#2) On offense, Dwight is a shell of himself. Actually, that’s not true. Howard has somehow managed to play 13 seasons in the NBA on four different teams under countless coaches without ever having learned one post move. It’s quite remarkable. Dwight has spent his entire adult life — from age 19 to 31 — at the same job and has learned nothing. Now that his athleticism is sapped due to age and injury, Dwight is reduced to getting blocked at the rim by Marcin Gortat and Markieff Morris.
Plus/Minus is not always a reliable statistic, but in Game 1 it told a pretty compelling story:
Dwight Howard minus-21 in 29:04 minutes.
Mike Muscala plus-20 in 12:40 minutes.
The revelation that Dwight is not great anymore does not qualify as breaking news. Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer surely knows this. In Game 2, he limited Howard to 20 minutes (all other Hawks starters played 30-plus minutes). In fact, when Dwight picked up his third and fourth fouls with 7:50 and 7:30 remaining in the third quarter, respectively, Budenholzer left Howard in the game, presumably hoping Dwight would pick up his fifth and sixth fouls in short order.
Alas, Howard went foul-free for the next four minutes so Budenholzer had to do the dirty work himself and sat Howard with 3:38 remaining in the third period and never put him back in the game.
Dwight did not appreciate his fourth quarter benching. After the game, he channeled his inner-Rasheed Wallace (“Both teams played hard”) and answered a series of questions with the same three-word response: “I don’t know.”
While Dwight may be struggling for answers, his teammate Paul Millsap knows exactly what the Hawks must do to get back into the series. When asked where the Hawks have an advantage, Millsap replied: “Our small ball is better than theirs.” In other words, bench Dwight.
It remains to be seen whether Budenholzer has the willingness — and authority — to bench the Hawks’ $70 million man. Howard is under contract for two more years, so any decision to bench him could have long-term implications beyond this first round series. Dwight already wore out his welcome in his last two NBA stops, and if Budenholzer removes him from the starting lineup, it could be the start of a very rocky two-year relationship.
Either way, Wizards fans have no sympathy for Atlanta’s current predicament. Two years ago, the Hawks benefitted greatly from Randy Wittman’s stubborn insistence on playing Nene against Millsap every single game despite all available evidence that it was a colossal mistake.
And Scott Brooks, who was crucified for starting a lead-footed Kendrick Perkins against the Miami Heat in the 2012 NBA Finals, is surely relieved to have someone else wrestling with playoff lineup decisions.
Yin and Yang of Brandon Jennings.
Before the series began, I asked Brandon Jennings about guarding Hawks backup point guard Jose Calderon. Jennings likes to harass opposing point guards with full-court defense. However, Calderon is one of the most sure-handed points guards in the NBA, annually ranking among the league leaders in assist-to-turnover ratio. So, will Jennings change his strategy? No. He said he will play Calderon the same as every opponent, 94 feet from the basket. Then, Jennings added with a smile, “And the thing is, he’s going to have to guard me, so good luck with that.”
In Game 1, Jennings came up with a huge steal at the start of the fourth quarter to help turn the momentum in Washington’s favor. In Game 2, Jennings made good on the second part of his quote. With Washington trailing 80-76, Jennings decided to take his jumper for a test-drive and hit three straight shots on Calderon. He punctuated the Wizards comeback with a nice dish to Jason Smith for an emphatic dunk to tie the game.
— NBA.com (@NBAcom) April 20, 2017
That’s the good part. Here’s the bad part. Jennings kind of, sort of, cannot play one-on-one defense. CSN’s J. Michael laid out several examples from the Hawks series, but this has been a season-long issue.
— J. Michael (@JMichaelCSN) April 20, 2017
Another Jennings-related issue is Brooks’ curious fascination with playing a John Wall-Brandon Jennings back-court. The results have been disastrous, and there does not seem to be any reason to play Jennings off the ball. His value (running the offense, pushing the ball, creating looks for teammates) is negated when he is off the ball and, since he is not a good spot up shooter, Wall has one less guy to pass to.
Hopefully Brooks is working on alternative lineups for when he takes Beal out of the game toward the end of the first quarter.
Refs Take Center Stage.
The Atlanta Hawks pulled off an impressive feat after Game 1. Despite being awarded a ridiculous 39 free throws (and making 32), the Hawks — led by Paul Millsap’s “MMA” comment — somehow sold the narrative that Atlanta was unfairly disadvantaged by Washington’s physical play. The Wizards, as you might recall, shot only 17 free throws in Game 1.
In Game 2, the refs responded by calling an unfathomable (and unwatchable) 55 combined fouls on the Hawks and Wizards. Atlanta ended with 38 free throw attempts compared to Washington’s 33. The fouls seemed to be disproportionately distributed among Washington’s perimeter defenders and big men, with Morris, Otto Porter, and Kelly Oubre each picking up their fourth foul in the third quarter and sitting out large stretches of the game. Markieff and Otto were limited to 20 and 23 minutes, respectively, and Kelly only played 13 minutes off the bench.
Former NBA referee and current vice president of referee operations, Bob Delaney, watched Game 2 from the league’s center court seats in section 111. At halftime, I asked him about the seemingly endless parade of whistles in the first 24 minutes. Delaney laughed at the suggestion that Millsap’s “MMA” comment was responsible for the hyper-vigilant refereeing. He said that’s for ESPN to talk about and it has no impact on the refs. He said it is a physical series and the refs look for specific criteria, such as whether a player has been redirected on his drive to the basket, before making a call.
— Ledell's Place (@LedellsPlace) April 20, 2017
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