The Atlanta Hawks took advantage of the Washington Wizards' misfortune on Tuesday night, earning a 106-90 win over a Washington squad playing without All-Star point guard John Wall to bounce back from Sunday's series-opening loss and knot their best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinals matchup at one game apiece.
[Follow Dunks Don't Lie on Tumblr: The best slams from all of basketball]
Small forward DeMarre Carroll continued his somewhat surprising scoring streak, popping for a game-high 22 points on 9-for-16 shooting with six rebounds, four assists and a steal in 38 minutes. The 28-year-old Carroll, best known for his defensive work and the lone Hawk starter not to make the Eastern Conference All-Star team back in February, is Atlanta's leading scorer this postseason. He has now scored 20 or more points in six straight playoff games. The last Hawk to do that? Would you believe Dominique Wilkins back in 1988?
Atlanta's dynamic big men each provided monster nights. Power forward Paul Millsap popped for 18 points, 11 rebounds (five on the offensive glass), five assists and four steals, while center Al Horford added 18 of his own with six assists, four rebounds, three steals and two blocks. Their offensive contributions helped the Hawks survive a second straight subpar shooting game from their backcourt, as Kyle Korver and Jeff Teague, who combined for 24 points on 9-for-29 shooting in the Game 1 loss, chipped in just 21 points on 7-for-23 shooting on Tuesday.
Korver, though, got unstuck when it counted, making three of his four 3-point tries after halftime, including this super-pure left corner 3 that barely even moved the net as it put Atlanta up 10 with just under three minutes remaining in the fourth:
Korver's 3 kicked off an 11-2 game-closing run that got Atlanta back to even in the series, but the 16-point margin of victory doesn't quite tell the tale. Despite holding just one lead in the contest — a 7-6 advantage after a Paul Pierce 3-pointer with 8:32 left in the opening quarter — Washington was very much in this thing, using hot 3-point shooting (12-for-22 from deep) and a willingness to push the ball in transition to stay within hailing distance of the Hawks into the late stages of the final frame, even without their leader and best player.
Wall, the lightning-quick floor general whose 18 points, 13 assists and seven rebounds led the Wizards to their home-court-advantage-stealing Game 1 victory, was ruled out of Game 2 about an hour before tipoff, as the left wrist he injured on Sunday just wouldn't cooperate during his pre-game warmups. That forced Wizards coach Randy Wittman to do some, um, juggling:
(Yep. The clipboard again.)
Wittman shuffled up his starting lineup and redistributed playmaking responsibility, which — as you might expect — meant some rough patches for a Washington offense that's been crushing the opposition thus far this postseason.
He slid reserve Ramon Sessions into Wall's place in the starting lineup, and the eight-year veteran responded well. Sessions scored a career playoff high 21 points on 8-for-14 shooting — including a 3-for-5 mark from 3-point range, just the fifth time in his career (and the second time in these playoffs!) that he's made at least three triples in a game — to go with four assists, three rebounds and a steal in 39 1/2 minutes. He also called on Bradley Beal to take on a more significant playmaking role and the shooting guard did his level best to answer the bell, driving and kicking to dish a team-high seven assists to go with 20 points on 8-for-22 shooting, five rebounds and three steals in a team-high 43 minutes despite playing on a sprained ankle of his own.
But the Wiz clearly looked out of sorts as they searched for their offense early, opening the game with a turnover and coughing it up three times in the first six minutes. Combine the sloppy set pieces with a 3-for-11 mark from the field and strong starts from Millsap, Horford and Carroll, and you've got a recipe for an early deficit. Atlanta built a 10-point lead with 2 1/2 minutes left in the first and led 28-20 after 12 minutes, notching direct assists on 11 of their 12 first-quarter field goals while Washington managed just three helpers on their first eight makes.
From the early stages, the Hawks bigs' two-way activity significantly outpaced that of their Wizards counterparts. Center Marcin Gortat (10 points, nine rebounds) battled foul trouble before picking up his sixth personal midway through the fourth quarter, and power forward Nene continued his struggles to locate the basket. The Brazilian big man, who shot 67.9 percent from the field against Atlanta this season, scored just two points with four rebounds and four turnovers in 27 1/2 minutes, making him 0-for-9 from the floor through two games and a -17 in 45 minutes thus far in the series.
With their bigs struggling and without Wall's penetration to puncture and contort the Hawks' defense, the Wizards hung tough, riding hot shooting from Pierce (3-for-5 from 3-point land), some off-the-bench punch from Otto Porter (nine points, four rebounds, three assists, two steals) and just enough slithering through the defense from Beal and Sessions to head into halftime down seven. While Beal missed eight of his first 12 shots, he also had a hand in helping Korver miss six of his first seven, as the Florida product chased the league-leading marksman all over the court and kept a hand in his face at every opportunity.
After watching a 12-point early third-quarter lead disappear in Game 1, Hawks fans had to be feeling deja vu on Tuesday, as Sessions opened the third with 10 straight points against Atlanta's soft pick-and-roll coverages to get the Wiz within a point and keep them within two possessions for the bulk of the third.
But a late-quarter burst authored by reserves Kent Bazemore and Dennis Schröder kept the Hawks steady, with the German point guard's sharp closing-seconds drive and reverse putting Atlanta up five heading into the fourth:
... and hitting Horford for a gorgeous alley-oop layup off the pick-and-roll to give Atlanta a nine-point lead with just under 10 minutes remaining:
After struggling in Round 1 against the Brooklyn Nets, Schröder turned in another strong outing on Tuesday, scoring nine points with five rebounds, four assists and no turnovers while getting himself to the line six times in 17 1/2 minutes. He had company, as Bazemore (10 points, 3-for-3 shooting, 2-for-2 from 3-point land, one assist, one block) and center Pero Antic (eight points, 2-for-5 from 3, three rebounds, some stalwart work against Gortat) each chipped in off the Atlanta bench after fizzling in Game 1.
But as was the case in Atlanta's Game 5 and Game 6 wins over Brooklyn, it was the Hawks' starters who were the story. After choosing unsuccessfully to ride hybrid lineups in Game 1, Budenholzer upped the minutes for his starting five, from 18 on Sunday to 23 on Tuesday, and the starters responded — five more in the minutes column, five more in the plus-minus column, from +8 in Game 1 to +13 in Game 2. Even when Korver and Teague are firing blanks, Budenholzer needs to give his top lineup a longer leash and more lead time, and they came through in a big way in Game 2.
Despite getting blown off the court over the final few minutes, the Wizards have to head back to D.C. feeling confident. They took the Hawks at full strength at their gym, put a 60-win team on the ropes without their top gun, and now get to head home and give Wall's wrist a few days to heal up before Saturday's Game 3. The Wizards have proven they belong and have a legitimate chance of winning this series. Now it's the Hawks' turn to prove they can be rude houseguests, too.
- - - - - - -