Washington Wizards vs. Atlanta Hawks Playoff Preview

Graham Chapple —  April 15, 2017

In 2015, the Atlanta Hawks met the Washington Wizards in the Eastern Conference semi-finals after both teams knocked off the Brooklyn Nets and the Toronto Raptors in the first round respectively. The Wizards took Game 1 in Atlanta but an injury to John Wall’s hand marred the victory. Wall would sit out Games 2, 3, and 4 with the injury before returning for Game 5 but clearly wasn’t 100%. The series was tied at 2-2 when Wall returned and the Wizards would go on to drop Games 5 and 6 as the Hawks advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals.

While the Hawks celebrated their trip to the Conference Finals, the Wizards were left to wonder what could’ve been had John Wall been healthy. The Wizards believed, had Wall been healthy, they would’ve advanced to the Conference Finals.

“In my opinion, we should’ve won 4-1.”

— Bradley Beal

“You take away Al Horford or Jeff Teague from their team for three games, the series would be totally different. I’m a big key to this team. This team can still do great things without me. Those guys competed and gave themselves a chance to win. But I feel like if I was there we would have had a better opportunity of winning the series and probably could have went up 2-0 on the road like the Toronto series and came home with some momentum, and tried to close these guys out. But everything happens for a reason.”

— John Wall

“Healthy John. That’s all we’re missing. I think if he played all the games, I think we’d still be in the season today. That’s my opinion.”

— Marcin Gortat

And to close out:

“I give them credit. I always give a team credit. I give Atlanta credit. That’s a tremendous team. They’ve been playing like that all year. They’ve been playing great basketball. But whenever you’re playing against me, even if you beat me, I’m a sore loser. They didn’t really beat us.”

— Bradley Beal

“They didn’t really beat us”…

Those quotes came a few days after the Wizards exited the playoffs but I can’t imagine those feelings are much different now. The Wizards’ feelings about the 2015 playoffs are clear.

Fast forward two years later and it’s been a season of role-reversal — the Wizards are now the Southeast Division champions and are now the team looking down on the Hawks, who will have their work cut out for them in this series. And John Wall certainly hasn’t forgotten about 2015

“I’m still mad about the time I injured my hand. That’s still in the back of my mind even though they might have a different team.”

— John Wall

When asked whether Atlanta was the team Washington wanted to play, Wall responded “totally”.

John Wall and the Wizards are back for revenge…

The Washington Wizards are the favorites heading into this series. Of that, there is no doubt about. The Wiz won the season-series 3-1 but don’t look at that to define the Hawks’ chances. The first two games of that series took place on opening night, October 27th, and on November 4th — those results, essentially, do not matter and count for nothing in this series for two reasons:

Both sets of rosters are quite different now, particularly the benches. Kyle Korver, of course, was traded to Cleveland midseason, while Mike Scott and Tiago Splitter were also traded in February. The Hawks, however, added Mike Dunleavy, Ersan Ilyasova and José Calderón to their ranks to boost their bench. The Wizards, meanwhile, added scoring touches in the form Brandon Jennings and Bojan Bogdanović to bolster their bench.

In addition to the roster changes, both teams have had very different seasons since those two early meetings. The Hawks were on their way to a 9-2 start, and the Wizards, a 2-8 start. From there on out, the Hawks went 34-37 while the Wizards went 47-25.

The third meeting of this season-series was on January 27th in Atlanta, a game where the Wizards ran the Hawks out of their own building in a 114-86 rout. However, this game also has a little asterisks on it for both teams: the aforementioned bench changes hadn’t taken place at this time. Although, it would only be a small asterisks, the Hawks were brutally beaten.

You could also consider the final game of this season-series in late-March as another write-off for the Hawks. Not because they lost this game 104-100, but because Paul Millsap and Kent Bazemore did not play that game and it’s hard to gauge any Hawks game where Paul Millsap doesn’t play, let alone against another playoff team.

This season series could easily have ended up in a 2-2 tie or even 3-1 in favor of the Hawks. The Wizards’ only comprehensive and convincing win came in that January 27th meeting.

Season stats and season-series stats

Before we look at everything else (the keys to the series and whatnot), let’s take a look at the stats for both teams — their season stats (and where they ranked) and then the season-series stats between the two teams.

(All stats courtesy of NBA.com)

For the Hawks:

The season stats aren’t great for the Hawks across the board but you can see some statistical categories improve when the Hawks play the Wizards. The biggest concern would be the turnovers and the points off of those turnovers. We’ll get to that soon…

For the Wizards:

Some excellent season stats for the Wizards but the majority of them decrease when they play the Hawks. Shooting percentages are down across the board, as are assists, points in the paint and second chance points.

Alright, those are the stats. Let’s delve deep into some of those key areas. What are the keys to this playoff series? What are some of the things Atlanta need to do/do better? What are the things Atlanta need to look out for? Who are the x-factors? And so much more…

Ball movement

Forget what Washington are going to do for now, the Hawks have to look at themselves first. Their ball movement wasn’t good enough this season. Their assist per game decreased from 25.6 in 2015-16 (2nd in the league) to 23.6 (10th in the league). That said, the Hawks did find some life near the end of the regular season and ended the season on a 4-1 run (the final game against the Pacers the Hawks rested their starters) and they did that by rediscovering their identity, averaging 29 assists over the last five games. When the Hawks tally 29 assists in a game they’re 13-3. Heck, even when they get to 27 assists in a game they’re 17-5.

We all know what ball movement does for this team. The Hawks don’t have the individuals who can carry the offensive load for a seven game series, to average 30 points a game for a seven game. The ball needs to move in order to generate the best possible shot.

Check this stat out: last season, nearly 53% of the shots the Hawks generated were either — according to NBA.com — open (4-6 feet between the shooter and the nearest defender) and wide open (6+). That happened because the ball was moving around, multiple players touch the ball (as well as Al Horford’s floor spacing providing more open shots but that’s for another day…) and an open (or wide open) shot is generated. Ball movement, ‘Bud movement’, you know how this works by now…

To add to that, in 2015-16 just over 47% of the shots the Hawks took were either very tight (0-2 feet) and tight (2-4 feet). This season, the Hawks are only generating 47% open/wide open shots while taking 52.6 tight/very tightly contested shots.

Ball movement was a huge part of the Hawks’ four game winning streak at the end of the season and this did not go unnoticed.

Malcolm Delaney put it best:

Delaney is right. The Hawks are not a good team when they don’t move the ball, 6-13 when they total less than 20 assists.

Ball movement is absolutely key for the Hawks if they’re going to do anything in this series. Again, they don’t have the likes of a Paul George or an Anthony Davis who can carry the offensive load for an entire series — everyone needs to contribute and the only way how that can happen is if the ball is moving around. That’s on everyone, but it needs to start with the point guards: Dennis Schröder, Malcolm Delaney and José Calderón.

Containing John Wall

Picture the Washington Wizards as a clock. If John Wall isn’t ticking, the Wizards aren’t tocking.

Wall is Washington’s best player, there’s no doubt about it. Behind a 23 PPG, 10.7 APG season, Wall (in addition to being named an All-Star for the fourth time) is likely to be named to an All-NBA team for the first time this season.

However, Wall’s fortunes against the Hawks have been quite different than his season-average numbers. Against the Hawks, Wall averaged 18 points per game on 32.9% shooting from the field and 25% from behind the arc. For reference, his season-long shooting percentages are 45% from the floor and 32.7% from behind the arc.

We all know John Wall isn’t a great perimeter shooter. He earns his living at the rim/in the paint, using his speed (and amazing Marcin Gortat screens) to get to the rim/the paint. But against the Hawks, Wall didn’t excel as he did against other teams. For the season, Wall shot 58% in the restricted area and 34% in the paint (specifically the non-restricted area). Against the Hawks, Wall shot 35% in the restricted area and 60% in the paint (again, not including the restricted area) but that percentage is only so high because Wall made three of only five attempts in that area.

Wall’s frequency of shots also differs drastically against the Hawks. For the season, 44% of Wall’s overall shots come less than 10 feet of the rim (of which he made 54.8% of the time) while his jump shot frequency was 45.3% (of which he made 37.4%). Against the Hawks, the frequency of shots within 10 feet decreased to 31.4% (of which he made just over 40%) while the frequency of jump shots increased to 55.7% (of which he made only 28% of).

The results are very clear.

Why has this been the case?

I think Dwight Howard has been a huge reason why Wall has been limited. Dwight, although he isn’t blocking three shots per game as he once did, is still an enforcer around the rim. You can’t just wander into the paint and put up weak shots, Dwight will just snuff them out. His presence around the rim this season has helped in this regard.

I mentioned Wall’s shot frequency stats against the Hawks this season. When you look at the same numbers from the 2015-16 season, they’re higher than this year’s, which is not a good thing. Wall shot 42.9% in the restricted area, the frequency of his shots less than 10 feet from the basket was 40.7% (of which he made 40%) and his jump shot frequency was 44.4% (of which he made was 41.7%).

You can see it too. On this possession, Wall can tell — when he reads the defense — that’s there’s no way he’s going to be able to drive into the paint with Dwight right there and instead settles for a jump shot.

In the end, Dennis Schröder also does a good job contesting his shot, but Wall could’ve turned on the jets if he wanted to escape Schröder and attack the rim but he would’ve only found Dwight in the way.

Part of the Hawks’ defensive scheme with Wall is that they’re happy for him to take jump shots (not open jump shots, mind you). If he makes them, he makes them and you just have to live with that. But sometimes it’s hard to close down Wall when Gortat sets the screens that he does.

Gortat just creates space for everyone he screens for and this leads to open jump shots. In fact, Gortat led the league in screen assists with 6.2 The Hawks big-man involved in the pick-and-roll is going to have to step up (or over in this case) and close out those otherwise open shots, in this case Millsap contests but it’s not enough.

Again, Gortat creates space for Wall but Dwight Howard doesn’t step up and contest this open shot. Even if they’re open, Wall’s not going to make all of these open shots but you have to at least close out/contest and this is going to be one of the many tests for the Hawks when it comes to guarding that John Wall-Marcin Gortat pick-and-roll.

But just because Wall is missing jump shots doesn’t mean he can’t impact the game in other ways on the offensive end. He averages over 10 assists (second in the league) for a reason. He does an excellent job in transition, whether it’s finding an opportunity for himself or for a teammate.

The Hawks have had a solid game plan for Wall in all four of these games with the Wizards seemingly unable to figure out an adjustment, at least in the course of the regular season. The Hawks just need to continue to enforce the current game plan for Wall, if they can keep him to his season-series averages I think the Hawks would be very happy with that. Easier said than done, however, Wall is a terrific player.

Containing Bradley Beal and transition defense

When John Wall hasn’t been firing (or playing as the case was in the 2015 playoffs) against the Hawks, it’s been Bradley Beal who has stepped up. In the 2015 Hawks-Wizards series, Beal averaged 25.2 point per game on 42% shooting from the field and 39% from behind the arc. In this year’s season series, Beal has again proven to be a thorn in the Hawks’ side, averaging 21 PPG on 45.2% shooting from the field and 34.6% from behind the arc. However, similar to Wall, these are lower than his season-averages of 23 PPG on 48% shooting from the field and 40% from behind the arc.

While you can afford to leave Wall to shoot three-pointers, you absolutely cannot give Beal the same kind of treatment. The one thing the Hawks definitely have to adjust is their transition defense and they know it.

“If we can do something to minimize or keep them out of transition that is most important. Transition is the first thing we talk about the first week of training camp. Transition, if you want to be a good defensive team, is always a priority. It’s nothing out of the ordinary, but you have to stay disciplined, stay to your principles and your effort has to be great.”

— Coach Mike Budenholzer

Bradley Beal was a player — throughout the season-series — who wriggled free in transition and often resulted in a lot of sadness for the Hawks.

Off of a turnover, Wall comes at the Hawks at speed only to spin around and find his running mate, Bradley Beal.

No other player has assisted another player more than John Wall has assisted Bradley Beal, the pair successfully connecting (i.e. a made field goal) on 245 occasions.

Again, the two connect in transition leading to an open three-point attempt.

Dwight Howard should probably be a little tighter to Beal in this instance but, fortunately for the Hawks, this particular shot missed. A lucky escape though, Beal does not miss many open three-pointers.

Again in transition, Beal escapes the primary focus of the Hawks until it’s too late. Millsap does a decent job closing out this shot but it’s not enough and Beal hits the transition three.

John Wall commands such a focus, especially in transition. With Wall’s sheer speed tearing towards you, you’re back-pedalling and multiple guys are needed to slow Wall down. You get so distracted with Wall (and/or his trailers like Gortat) that you lose focus of a Bradley Beal or an Otto Porter in transition.

In this case, it’s Beal.

Again, off of the turnover Wall finds Beal and he already knows — before Beal makes the shot — that it’s good.

Obviously it’s not just Beal that can damage the Hawks in transition but Porter, Wall and even Markieff Morris too.

The Wizards have been excellent in transition all season and rank fifth in fast break points per game and Bradley Beal is a huge reason why.

Beal is not only a handful in transition but in the half court too. We’ve talked about how amazing of a screen setter Marcin Gortat is, and when you combine that with a deadly three-point/jump shooter (as Beal is)…you’re going to have issues.

Just look at the excellent contact Gortat makes with Beal’s defender (oh, hey, Kyle). It gives Beal the separation he needs to fire away an open shot.

There’s not much Dwight (the other Hawk involved in this pick-and-roll) can do here. He’s too deep in the paint and too far away to effectively contest Beal’s open jump shot.

Again, Gortat provides Beal an excellent screen and it gives Beal the space he needs to fire away.

You can’t ask much more of Dennis Schröder here (except that he doesn’t foul, which has happened when Dennis has gone over picks to contest shots in this series). He goes over the screen and gets his hand up there to contest. Just the brilliant screen from Gortat and the shooting touch of Beal was too much.

Off of an offensive rebound, again, Gortat sets a beauty of a screen to free up Beal for three.

On this occasion, Dwight does step up and contest Beal’s shot but he makes it anyway. ‘Good D, better O’.

Beal is a terrific shooter, but don’t think that’s all he is. Beal can operate very well off of the dribble too.

Off of the Gortat screen, Beal (who you can see is a nifty enough ball handler) runs into Mike Muscala but shakes him off with a lovely cross and change of direction and hits a contested shot.

A double contest, for that matter. That’s just a fantastic move.

Beal can also get to the rim. Off of the (you guessed it, get used to it) Gortat screen, Beal lulls the defense to sleep, using a quick change of pace to get the rim with the Hawks trailing in his dust.

In Atlanta’s November 4th game against the Wizards at the Virizon Center, Beal got to the free throw line of 14 occasions, making 13 of them. There’s so much more to Beal than his shooting and that’s what makes him a great player and a huge reason why the Wizards won the Southeast Division and took home court advantage.

Make no mistake, Bradley Beal is a huge offensive threat and it’s going to be a tall order slowing one of Wall or Beal on any given night.

“John Wall and Bradley Beal have had pretty decent years. They pack a punch. They are the catalyst for their team. How they go, their team goes. Obviously, they are a focal point, but it’s going to take a team of five players on the court at once to get the job done.”

— Kent Bazemore

Are the Hawks up to the challenge?

Dennis Schröder: is he ready for primetime?

Last summer, the Hawks committed their future to Dennis Schröder by trading Jeff Teague to the Indiana Pacers and signing Schröder to a four-year extension. It was no secret, even before Teague’s trade that Schröder wanted the keys to the point guard position. Well, he has them and now he’s going to find out what it means take the point in the playoffs for the first time as a full time starter.

Dennis has had an up-and-down season (more positive than negative, to be fair) but is really going to have to step his game up in the postseason. Dennis didn’t have the best season-series against the Wizards, averaging 15.3 points per game on 38% shooting from the field, 20% shooting from behind the arc, 4.4 assists per game and 5.5 turnovers per game all of which are way below his season-averages of 18 PPG on 45% shooting from the field, 34% from three, 6.3 APG and 3.3 TOV.

Dennis really struggled with turnovers and shot selection. His overall defense of John Wall was actually much better than his defense of other point guards this season (Dennis has not played very good defense this season) but the shot selection and turnovers were very, very poor in the season-series with the Wizards and it cost the Hawks big-time.

Most of the terrible shots Dennis took time after time in this season series usually came: (A) without many other Hawk players touching the ball, (B) in the first few seconds of the shot clock and (C) usually with a hand in his face.

Off of a switch, Dennis is now being guarded by Markieff Morris. Instead of using his pace to get past Morris, Dennis elects to shot a contested three-pointer instead.

To be, somewhat, fair to Dennis, Kris Humphries doesn’t really help in opening up a driving lane for which to take Morris off the dribble with, but there’s a better offensive choice to be made by Dennis here.

With barely any clock worked, and a poor screen from Dwight that doesn’t free up Dennis from Wall, Schröder elects to take a contested three-pointer.

Just a terrible shot, Wall is right there. These are the kind of shots Dennis cannot be taking in a playoff series.

In January’s blowout loss at home, the Hawks are off to a slow start. With nearly three minutes played, they have only one point on the board and have already seen Dennis hoist a three and miss. Paul Millsap nor many other Hawk players have touched the ball at this stage of the game. When the Hawks need their point guard to run the offense, he takes another shot himself (without anyone else touching it) which misses. In transition, Beal gets to the rim and scores.

Possessions like this are reasons why Dennis only averaged 4 assists per game in this series. Run the system, get your teammates involved. As the point guard, that’s your job.

Following a defensive stop, Dwight Howard secures the rebound and passes the ball to Dennis. Schröder races up the other end and immediately jacks up a three-pointer which he misses.

While that’s a shot Dennis can make, it was a poor shot to take given the circumstance. You’re down by 17 points at home in the second quarter, home-run plays aren’t going to get you back in this game. You have to chip away, run the offense, run the system. When you’re in this situation you need ‘Bud-ball’ not ‘Hero-ball’.

You would’ve thought by late-March that Dennis would’ve learned — at least somewhat — from his past mistakes as he continues to get his feet wet in his first full season as an NBA starter, but makes the same mistakes as yesterday: walking the ball up the floor before taking another contested three-pointer without anyone else touching the ball.

With shot selection like this (and the other examples we looked at) it’s no wonder Dennis shot under 40% from the field and 20% from behind the arc in this series.

But perhaps worse than Dennis’ shot selection against the Wizards have been his turnovers, 5.5 per game in the season-series. With how deadly Washington can be in transition, the last thing you want to do is set them up for a fast break opportunity by committing live-ball turnovers and this was something Dennis did time after time, highlighting the dangers of Washington’s transition game.

After coughing the ball up on this possession, the Wizards break the other way and Otto Porter is fouled as he converts the fast break layup.

Markieff Morris and John Wall combine to pry the ball from Schröder and Wall is the beneficiary, finishing this layup despite being undercut from Bazemore.

Wall was not happy with this play at all.

Here, Dennis tries to feed Millsap in the post but takes so long to actually pass Millsap the ball that when he does (and the pass is too long for Millsap anyways) Marcin Gortat sees it coming from a mile away and intercepts the pass. Wall steams in transition and finds the trailing Beal for a three in transition.

That’s just so easy. It was so obvious what Dennis was going to do, he took forever to send the ball to Millsap and the execution was poor when he finally did. Millsap would’ve been stretching to reach that even if Gortat wasn’t coming over.

And that wasn’t the only turnover like it. This is about as bad as you can get.

A brainless pass, there’s no other way to put it (without swearing at least).

Similar to the attempted pass to Millsap in the post, Bradley Beal can see this pass to Tim Hardaway Jr. coming a mile away and he latches onto it but is unable to finish.

Good recovery block from Dennis but it shouldn’t have been necessary in the first place.

Off of a live-ball turnover committed by Dennis, the Wizards waste no time in getting forward. Markieff Morris (I believe) rifles a pass toward the streaking Wall who finishes with a monstrous dunk.

We’ve seen this clip already and it’s not a good look for Dennis. Off of a wild turnover, the Wiz break the other way with Wall and he finds Beal for a three-pointer in transition.

One of Dennis’ 10 turnovers in the Hawks’ late March meeting with the Wizards.

It goes without saying that Dennis has to take better care of the ball and make better decisions on the offensive end in this series. The Wizards were 3rd in the league in points off of turnovers and if Schröder isn’t taking care of the ball and making good passes, the Wizards could run wild in this category.

Pundits and experts alike are citing Dennis Schröder’s inconsistency, unpredictability and inexperience as a point guard as a reason why they picked the Wizards over the Hawks in this series. Dennis is a very talented point guard but needs to grow as a player in these playoffs if the Hawks are to stand a chance (almost Kawhi-like as a younger Kawhi Leonard began find his way in the 2013 playoffs). If he can’t even somewhat match his opposite number, John Wall, in this series, the Hawks are in trouble.

The potential is there for Schröder, he can beat almost anyone off of the dribble when he wants to, including Wall.

He just needs to play smarter. If he does that, Dennis could have a great series and if Dennis has a great series the Hawks could stand a chance. But it’s up to him…

Washington’s supporting cast

Outside of Wall and Beal, Markieff Morris is the next heavy Hawks-hitter. In the season-series, Morris averaged 17 points per game on 44% shooting from the field and 41.7% from behind the arc. Morris’ ability to stretch the floor caused the Hawks issues in the regular season and will likely continue to pose a threat from the outside.

Morris is a very solid offensive player. In many ways, (and I do not mean to disrespect) you could say he’s a poor mans Paul Millsap. He can stretch the floor (a better three-point shooter than Millsap is), operate in the post and take you off the dribble. He’s just a very well rounded offensive player.

Otto Porter also has a huge role to play. As a 43% three-point shooter, the Hawks can’t allow him to wriggle free, because John Wall will find him if he is open in the half court and open in transition.

The Wizards also free up Porter with some excellent screens not just from Gortat but with Morris too. The Wizards sometimes run a play where Morris will come over the where Porter and set a screen as the pass is fired out to Porter/the shooter and it creates an open three-point shot.

This is what Taurean Prince is going to have to be careful of. He can’t leave Porter as he did here. Him doing so allowed the Morris screen to prevent TP from getting back to Porter. If Prince was tighter to Porter, there’s a good chance Prince would’ve recovered from this screen to better contest this shot. It’s a play the Wizards like to run, here, Porter does the exact same thing to free up Morris for an open three.

By the time Millsap realises that Morris is open and about to shoot, the screen is already set and Millsap can’t get around it in time to close down the shot. The Hawks will have to be wary of this play.

Washington are a team that rely on their starters. No other starting five score in double digits as much as this Wizards starting five (Wall, Beal, Porter, Morris and Gortat). The Hawks, I’m sure, will live with Gortat making a few jump shots but they cannot allow Porter to go off in this series. He averaged 12 PPG shot 57% from the field and 46.7% from three in the season series, those percentages are too high.

With Morris, it could be a case of ‘we collapse/help to make sure Wall and Beal don’t go off and if Markieff Morris beats us…fine’. And by ‘we’ it’s probably going to be Paul Millsap (Morris’ defender), who might have to come over and help off of pick-and-rolls/penetrations which could allow Morris the open space. If it means that Wall and Beal are somewhat limited, the Hawks may live with some of those open Morris shots.

Either way, Markieff Morris has a key role to play in this series.

Atlanta’s supporting cast

The Hawks are going to have to work harder than the Wizards to get their offense. The Wizards, as a team, have better shot creators than the Hawks do, create more in transition and create more in the half court (Wiz with the 9th ranked offensive rating of 108.5 while the Hawks rank 27th with 102.3). The Hawks are going to need to move the ball around if they’re going to create good looks for themselves. The ball will fizz around but eventually someone is going to be open. And when it’s time to the take that shot, the likes of Taurean Prince, Thabo Sefolosha, Tim Hardaway Jr., Ersan Ilyasova and Mike Dunleavy are going to have to be ready because if they can’t knock shots down it’s going to very difficult for the Hawks to crack 100 points. Those guys have huge roles to play, but not as much of a role as Kent Bazemore.

While THJ had a good series against the Wizards (18 PPG on 51% shooting from the field and 41% from three), Kent Bazemore did not. Baze averaged 7.3 PPG on 25% shooting and 27% from behind the arc. Baze has often tried to do too much this season and this was very evident in the three games he played against the Wizards this season. Baze has a huge role to play off the bench in this series. In fact, he could be even more important than that. In the first meeting between these two teams on opening night, the Hawks won 114-99 despite Baze shooting 1-of-7 from the field. In November 4th’s three point defeat in D.C., Baze was scoreless on 0-of-7 shooting. Had he made even two field goals, Atlanta would’ve won this game. In a four point loss in late-March, Baze didn’t play, if he had, who knows what might have happened…

Baze has a massive role to play in this series not just offensively but defensively. He can guard 1-through-3 (not all 3’s mind you, such as the 6″10 Danilo Gallinari or 6″8 Carmelo Anthony), he can guard Wall, Beal and Porter on whatever possession during the game. And that’s huge, that’s something that’s very important to coach Bud.

Bazemore’s inconsistency this season hasn’t pleased fans (especially given the money he is now earning) but if he could string together a strong postseason it would go a long way winning back some of those fans.

Turnovers

Turnovers were a big factor in the regular season-series and whichever team takes care of the ball (and in the process, limits the opposing team’s points off of turnovers) is going to have a huge advantage over the other. We know, and looked at, how deadly Washington are in transition and the Hawks can’t fuel Washington in transition by turning the ball over as they have done all season long. Everyone has to take care of the ball for the Hawks, too often have turnovers cost the Hawks games in the regular season and, if they’re not careful, it could cost the Hawks the series.

John Wall is a turnover prone guard and the Hawks will have their chances to take advantage of that but so will the Wizards with Dennis Schröder. Whichever point guard can limit their turnovers will put their team in a great position to win this vital category.

Battle of the benches

Here is one area Atlanta will have a great opportunity to capitalise. Washington’s bench was so poor for them that the Wizards cut their rotation to nine players in late December/January. That’s normally something you do when the playoffs arrive. Off-season signings/acquisitions such as Trey Burke and Andrew Nicholson were either replaced or traded away. To help their bench production, the Wizards signed Brandon Jennings after he was waived by the Knicks and traded for Brooklyn’s Bojan Bogdanović. And there’s a good reason why those changes had to happen. Prior to the All-Star break, the Wizards’ bench averaged 23.4 PPG, only the Minnesota Timberwolves’ bench averaged less per game. After the All-Star break, the bench scoring has improved to 34.4 PPG which ranks 18th.

Jennings and Bojan can ignite at any time, which is a scary possibility for the Hawks, and when they want to move the ball the Wiz’s second unit can really move the ball.

Jason Smith provides an outside touch and Kelly Oubre has been solid this season too. But the Wizards are dealing with an injury to one of their most important bench players: backup center Ian Mahinmi. Mahinmi, who helped turn the game in late-March in Washington’s favor (a plus-22), is dealing with strained calf and looks set to miss the first two games of this series at the very least. That’s a big blow, because if Gortat runs into foul trouble Smith is the backup center. That…might not go well if Dwight Howard is also in the game…

For the Hawks, their bench scoring has been solid enough for most of the season but their bench play really suffered when Paul Millsap and Kent Bazemore’s prolonged injury lay-offs forced Bud to dig into his bench and insert his most productive bench players into the starting lineup: THJ and Ilyasova. As such, the Hawks’ bench has averaged 32.5 PPG since the All-Star break, 22nd in the league in that time.

Ultimately, however, past bench performances in the season-series mean nothing now because neither team has played against other with their new and improved proper bench units at full strength. Jennings and Bogdanović only played one game in this season-series as has Ilyasova, and he started the game in place of the injured Millsap.

We simply don’t know how this battle will go but it will be an important one and the one area — especially with absence of Mahinmi — the Hawks could have the upper hand.

Overall thoughts and prediction

It’s going to be a tough series, there’s no doubt about it. There’s also no doubt that Washington are the favorites and they are the favorites for a reason.

It’s very interesting that coach Bud is rolling with the same lineup that won four consecutive games at the end of the season: Schröder, THJ, Prince, Millsap and Howard. Prince is going to have his work cut out for him (as all rookies in the playoffs do) and I wouldn’t be surprised if Sefolosha isn’t reinserted at some point during this series, certainly to finish games.

The individual matchups are intriguing. Schröder-Wall is a tough matchup for the Hawks and that could get ugly especially if Dennis underperforms. THJ-Beal could be a very fun shootout and you feel whoever plays the better defense could emerge on top there (though Beal would be the favorite there), Prince-Porter is going to be interesting but more so interesting to see how Prince copes with the playoff intensity (Porter should have the edge), Millsap-Morris is going to be fun to watch as will the Howard-Gortat matchup. That’s going to be a very physical battle between Dwight and Gortat, it will get chippy between those two. We’re about to find out if playoff Dwight still exists…

As he has been all season, Paul Millsap is so important to this team’s success. Even if he struggled on the offensive end, Millsap’s defense is irreplaceable, as the Hawks know — 2-9 without Millsap this season. Along with Millsap, Dennis Schröder and THJ are hugely important players — they’re the only two players who can create offense for themselves/score in bunches…they’ll need to be ready to go.

Transition defense, turnovers, ball movement, the bench…all of the things we talked about are going to play big factors in this series but I think the Wizards do have the overall edge.

I’ll say Wizards in 6 but having examined the series more and more, an Atlanta upset would honestly not surprise me anymore. It would’ve shocked me a week ago. The Hawks have the potential and the tools to upset Washington but a lot has to go right for them and the execution of the game plan has to be perfect.

It’s going to be a fascinating battle.

Graham Chapple

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