TAI Roundtable: Wizards vs Hawks — Playoff Preview
[Photo via NBA.com]
Washington’s strange and eventful 2016-17 season lived four distinct lives within the roughly six months between late October and mid April.
There was the harrowing 2-8 start — which stretched to 7-13 with a disastrous home loss to the Orlando Magic . . . in a game where John Wall scored 52 points — that left fans questioning the meaning of life. Then there was the dominant 27-win, eight-loss rampage through the league when the Wizards could do no wrong. That was followed by the post-All-Star break slump where Washington’s alarming defensive ineptitude brought back unpleasant memories from Wizards of seasons past.
Finally, there were the meandering, uninspiring final few weeks after Washington clinched home court advantage on March 28, and, because Boston and Cleveland were jockeying for the No. 1 seed, it was not clear if Washington would even benefit from capturing the No. 3 seed.
Now, the playoffs begin and Washington will be born once again, this time unto a first round matchup with the Atlanta Hawks. The last time these two teams played in the postseason, Paul Pierce hit a miraculous game-tying 3-pointer juuuust fractions of a second after the final buzzer, giving the Hawks a 4-2 series win and the right to get swept by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the conference finals.
This year, things are a bit different. Gone are a cast of Nene, Pierce, Al Horford, DeMarre Carroll, Jeff Teague, and Kyle Korver. And, it’s worth saying again, Washington has home court in a playoff series for the first time since 1979.
To preview the much anticipated playoff rematch, TAI writers answer three questions about the Wizards vs. Hawks showdown, and offer a series prediction.
Season Series (Wizards 3-1)
- October 27: Wizards 99 @ Hawks 114
- November 4: Hawks 92 @ Wizards 95
- January 27: Wizards 112 @ Hawks 86
- March 22: Hawks 100 @ Wizards 104
- Kyle Weidie (@Truth_About_It): Wizards in 5
- Adam Rubin (@LedellsPlace): Wizards in 6
- Bryan Frantz (@BFrantz202): Wizards in 6
RUBIN: Kelly Oubre, Jr. vs. Dennis Schröder. One of the most exciting aspects of Oubre’s breakout season is his ability to frustrate opposing point guards. John Wall has the potential to be a great defender but he too often settles for reach-arounds and lets smaller, quicker guards into the paint. That’s where Oubre comes in. Scott Brooks has switched Oubre onto point guards for large stretches, including crunch time, and he excelled against some of the best in the league (Isaiah Thomas, Damian Lillard, and Goran Dragic).
As an added bonus, Wall is great at defending bigger guys. So, unlike the Celtics or Warriors when they try to hide IT2 or Steph Curry, switching Wall onto Kent Bazemore, Mike Dunleavy, or even Paul Millsap, does not create a defensive mismatch. If Oubre can do the heavy lifting against Schröder in crunch time, that will make Wall’s — and the rest of the team’s — job so much easier.
Strong second place is Markieff Morris vs. Paul Millsap. Markieff had Millsap’s number in the regular season, and if that continues, Atlanta is in trouble.
FRANTZ: Marcin Gortat vs. Dwight Howard. It’s an easy answer, but Howard is averaging 14 and 15 against Washington this year, both above his season averages. With Mahinmi not around to help ease the burden, Gortat must be committed on the boards.
WEIDIE: A lot of people will state the obvious, so why not me, too? Particularly, with Ian Mahinmi hurt, it’s Gortat vs. Dwight Howard. Gortat spent the first three years of his NBA career playing behind “the great Dwight Howard” in Orlando — a fact he won’t let us forget — before being traded during his fourth season, along with Vince Carter, Mickael Pietrus, and a first round pick, to Phoenix for Earl Clark, Jason Richardson, and Hedo Turkoglu. (Note: totally forgot that, in addition to playing for the Raptors, Nets, Mavericks, Magic, and Grizzlies, Carter suited up with the Suns for 51 games, his shortest stint with any team.)
Since the break-up, in 15 head-to-head meetings, Howard owns a 9-6 record versus Gortat with averages of 31.5 minutes, 16.8 points (.560 FG%), 12.5 rebounds, and 1.5 blocks; while Gortat has averaged 28.1 minutes, 8.8 points (.509 FG%), 9.1 rebounds, and 1.3 blocks in those meetings.
The gist is that Howard is far from the player he used to be, but he’s still a load, and Gortat has never-eva-eva-eva been good at handling loads. He’ll chase down or snag rebounds with this length, but he simply cannot take up enough space to keep big bodies out of the paint. What Gortat needs to do: find a way to be a pest and pull Howard away from the rim by hitting his midrange jumper and being the cog in heavy pick-and-roll action.
[Credit: Brad Mills – USA TODAY Sports.]
Biggest Thing That Scares You About Atlanta.
RUBIN: It seems strange to say, but I am more scared of Mike Muscala than Dwight Howard. I know Dwight gets big numbers against Washington but they seem to be empty calories. I don’t mind when the Hawks dump it to him in the post and I’m willing to concede a few put-back dunks. Atlanta causes problems when they spread the floor with Mike Muscala and swing the ball for open perimeter looks.
The Hawks have a couple streaky shooters (Tim Hardaway, Jr. and Kent Bazemore), a point guard who can score in the paint when Gortat and Ian Mahinmi are out, and their best player (Paul Millsap) has a strong midrange game. So, Atlanta could steal a game or two simply on the power of hot 3-point shooting, and we all know Washington has trouble defending the long ball.
FRANTZ: How much they’ve been preparing for the playoffs. Look at April. There were extenuating circumstances, sure, but they went 3-0 against the Cavs and Celtics. A huge chunk of those minutes were played by reserves. The Hawks rested their key guys and had 10 guys play 20-plus minutes in the first Cavs game, when Cleveland played their stars (LeBron played 41 minutes!). The Hawks won by 14. Tim Hardaway Jr. and Mike Dunleavy combined for 42 points on 23 shots in 46 minutes.
All of Atlanta’s key reserves got plenty of burn in the final couple of weeks, while the Wizards only half-committed to that process in the final days of the season. And the one reserve who really stood out in the season finale for Washington? Trey Burke. Are the Wizards really going to be trotting him out in the playoffs?
WEIDIE: Nothing, really. Although I certainly feel like I should be more scared (for the Wizards). The Hawks are a pretty stout defensive team (fourth-best DefRtg in the league at 103.1; they are also active in pass deflection and charges-drawn stats), but they turn the ball over a ton (15.7 TOV%, third-most in NBA after Philadelphia and Brooklyn) and in general their offense just kinda stinks (ranked 27th in OffRtg).
The Wizards, meanwhile, have the ninth-best offense in the league, which is why, especially with Ian Mahinmi hurt, I think they just might focus more on blowing Atlanta out of the water on the scoreboard (even though Scott Brooks will certainly stress defense, Defense, DEFENSE, to set the table for subsequent playoff rounds).
If the Hawks can somehow control turnovers (highly doubtful with Dennis Schröder, Paul Millsap, and Dwight Howard) and catch fire from deep (fairly doubtful when relying on the aging Mike Dunleavy, Tim Hardaway Jr., Kris Humphries, and Ersan Ilyasova — Muscala, per Rubin, being somewhat of an exception), then Atlanta just might push the series to six games. But, naw.
X-Factor or Intangible That Will Affect Series.
RUBIN: It’s an unorthodox pick, but John Wall. Here’s why. Wall will be the best player on the court at all times. Most importantly, a “locked in” John Wall is the only player on either team who can win this series all by himself. Wall already said he wants to play Atlanta. He remembers being undercut by Jeff Teague (now with the Pacers) when he broke his wrist and hand in Game 1 in 2015. He remembers Schröder telling Bazemore to hit Wall’s injured wrist. He remembers Bazemore’s dangerous flagrant foul in the home opener this season when he undercut Wall on a fast break dunk attempt. If Wall wants to win this series, he will. Nothing else matters.
FRANTZ: A two-part answer: Tim Hardaway Jr, and the Mahinmi injury. Hardaway had 29 against the Wizards in March and 21 against them in October. He had 30 over two games against them last March, and he’s scored at least 10 in each of his last eight games against Washington. And the Wizards always allow a random wing to go off against them. My money’s on it being Hardaway, not Mike Dunleavy or Kent Bazemore or anybody else.
As for Mahinmi, I have no faith that he’ll be back in this series, and only barely more that he’ll be back at all in the postseason. We’re now expecting Marcin Gortat, Markieff Morris, and Jason Smith to match up with Dwight Howard, Paul Millsap, and Ersan Ilyasova. And don’t sleep on Ilyasova as a rebounder (he and Gortat each have exactly two games of 17-plus rebounds this year). The Wizards’ backcourt trounces the Hawks’ backcourt, but Washington’s frontcourt needs to at least pretend it can hold its own against Atlanta’s bigs.
WEIDIE: Basically, John Wall and Bradley Beal are primed to punk the shit out of Atlanta’s backcourt — X-factors. But let’s also give Scott Brooks some credit. Mike Budenholzer is a great coach, so Brooks will have to be the devil of details (i.e., making sure his team values each and every possession), because as much as I believe the Wizards out-talent the Hawks, by far, they’ve got a pretty tough task ahead if they want to escape their post-All-Star break funk and truly get in playoff mode. Brooks got his team this far (from their poor start), and now he especially needs to level-up given how his time in Oklahoma City ended. Opportunity, they call it.
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