Playoffs 2017: East First Round -- Wizards (4) vs. Hawks (5)
Series preview: Washington Wizards turn to dynamic backcourt to solve defensive-minded Atlanta Hawks
After winning division for first time in 38 years, Washington eyes taking next step
The Washington Wizards entered this season with a new hope. Longtime coach Randy Wittman had been replaced by Scott Brooks, and with shooting guard Bradley Beal signed to a long-term extension, the future was bright for the Wiz. After getting off to a dreadful 2-8 start, the Wizards righted the ship, and by February had a 17-game home winning streak. The Wizards ended up winning their division for the first time in 38 years. Atlanta endured hot and cold streaks all season, and at one point seemed to consider a complete rebuild.
But after injuries to several starters, the Hawks gradually got healthy, and with their playoff hopes on the line, the Hawks beat Boston and Cleveland (twice) over the course of a week to shore up the five spot and head into the postseason on a hot streak.
This will be Atlanta’s 10th consecutive playoff appearance, the longest streak in the Eastern conference.
3 quick questions and answers
Can the Hawks slow down Washington’s backcourt? John Wall and Bradley Beal are one of the most dynamic young backcourts in the NBA. They’ve combined to average 46.1 points per game, and Wall averages 10.7 assists per game, second in the NBA. In four games against the Hawks this season, the Wizards were 3-1. In the postseason, Wall will be expected to win the individual matchup against Atlanta’s 23-year-old point guard Dennis Schroder.
Who will score for Atlanta? The Hawks have been one of the NBA’s best defensive teams all season. Despite several blowout losses, the Hawks will finish the season with a 103.0 defensive rating, fourth-best in the NBA. Atlanta’s problems all season have been on the offensive end, where too often they end up settling for jumpers instead of attacking the basket. If they can maintain an aggressive approach on offense, they should be able to find points against Washington, which finished in the bottom third in defensive rating.
Who will win the battle of the bigs? In a league increasingly going smaller and looking for pace and space, the Wizards and Hawks feature a couple of old-school post players in Dwight Howard and Marcin Gortat, teammates years ago in Orlando. This season Howard averaged 14.8 rebounds in four games against Washington, and will be crucial in Atlanta’s efforts to control the boards against Washington.
The number to know
70 — The Hawks were outscored by 70 points this season, the worst point differential among playoff teams. They were one of four teams with a winning record and a negative point differential. They “overachieved” because they were 26-18 in games that were within five points in the last five minutes. And while Atlanta found ways to win close games, no team got more late-and-close reps than Washington. The Wizards led the league with 55 games that were within five points in the last five minutes and went 32-23 in those games. Washington and Atlanta ranked second and fourth, respectively, in field goal percentage on clutch shots, with the Wizards winning the two head-to-head meetings that went down to the last five minutes. Having games go down to the wire is in these teams’ DNA.
Making the pick
The Wizards enter the postseason a confident group, and rightfully so, considering their performance over the second two-thirds of the season. To win this series, Washington must figure out a way to neutralize Paul Millsap, who is Atlanta’s best player, as well as knock down the open 3-point shots they’re able to create. In the 2015 Eastern conference semifinals, the Hawks beat the Wizards in six games. Says here, this time things go the other way. Wizards in 6.
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Lang Whitaker has covered the NBA since 1998. You can e-mail him here, find his archive hereor follow him on Twitter.
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