How They Got Here
• Washington: The Wizards responded to a lottery season in 2015-16 not by overhauling the roster, but by trusting that a new head coach could mold their young talent into a solid playoff team. Scott Brooks came in to replicate some of the success he had with that same model in Oklahoma City, and the early results suggested that his methods did not take right away. Washington started the season 6-12 and displayed many of the same issues that plagued the Randy Wittmann era. The defense struggled, effort occasionally lagged, and the depth was nonexistent. It was all extremely disheartening.
Then everything clicked in December. Washington ran their record to 16-16 by the turn of the year and suddenly looked like a real threat in the East. By the time they took the Cleveland Cavaliers to overtime in February in one of the best games of the year, onetime doubters like me were singing their praises and proclaiming them one of the most watchable teams in the conference. The defense improved from bad to acceptably marginal, and the offense looked downright dangerous on its way to a top-10 finish in defensive efficiency.
So what changed? It wasn’t so much one big thing as a bunch of little ones. Point guard John Wall made the leap from very good to the genuine star so many of us hoped he’d become immediately upon becoming the No. 1 pick in the draft in 2010, and now he’s likely to find himself on the All-NBA Third Team. Bradley Beal developed from a good scorer into a great one and justified the max-level deal he got last summer. Otto Porter Jr. became one of the best three-point shooters in the league. Late-season pickups like Bojan Bogdanovic and Brandon Jennings contributed as expected. The bench resembled a functional unit. Etc.
The Wizards are far from a perfect team and could be upset in this series by the more experienced Hawks. But they’re certainly something now, and it wouldn’t be a surprised to see them build on this season’s 49 wins and drought-ending division title in 2017-18. The days of random playoff spikes and series wins are over. They’re actually building something in D.C., and the Wizards are as purely enjoyable as they’ve been since the glory days of Gilbert Arenas.
• Atlanta: Two years removed from the uncharacteristic act of winning the No. 1 seed in the East, the Hawks are now officially the Hawks again. Everyone’s favorite maddeningly inconsistent franchise finished with 43 wins, had two winning and losing streaks of at least six games, nearly blew their playoff berth in the final weeks of the season, and somehow ended up with a respectable seed anyway. The only way to be more Hawks would be to win this series in seven without impressing anyone and then get crushed in the next round against the top seed in the conference.
In retrospect, the return to Hawksdom seems preordained. The process started last summer when the front office traded longtime point guard Jeff Teague to clear the way for fourth-year player Dennis Schröder, an extremely promising talent who often doesn’t seem to realize he’s made a decision until after he’s followed through on it. Teague is no one’s idea of a steady, classic floor general, but next to Schröder he looks like the star of an instructional video. The German put up solid numbers for Atlanta this season (17.9 ppg and 6.3 apg), but those figures only tell part of the story.
Passing the torch to Schröder somehow pales in comparison to the Hawksian optics of replacing the departed Al Horford with Dwight Howard in the early days of the free agency period. Howard avoided the harsh light of national fame in Atlanta and successfully reconfigured his career as a second-tier center — his 13.5 ppg and 12.7 rpg are numbers most starting centers would kill to have — but the sight of him in a neon-accented jersey screams “We Demand Not To Be Taken Seriously.” Would you be surprised to learn that Schröder and Howard let Stephen Curry shoot a wide-open three in March because they couldn’t stop arguing?
As ever, though, it wouldn’t be a Hawks season if they didn’t also impress. Paul Millsap continued his quiet existence as one of the NBA’s best two-way forwards and projects professionalism, which helps to steady some of his teammates’ worst impulses. It’s no surprise that Atlanta’s stretch of nine losses in 11 games over the season’s last month mostly overlapped with Millsap’s eight-game absence due to injury.
Plus, the Atlanta defense is genuinely very good. It ranked fourth in points allowed per 100 possessions this season and can stifle the best attacks on a good night. It often has to, though, because the 27th-ranked offense goes through horrific shooting spells. If nothing else, the Hawks come by their streakiness honestly.
Washington won three of the four matchups between these teams in 2016-17, but the Hawks’ essential nature and the particulars of the schedule mean that it’s hard to read into the results too much.
That’s especially true of the first game, which served as the season opener for both teams. Atlanta dominated the fourth quarter and got a big game from Howard for a 114-99 win, but Wall and Beal combined to play just 54 minutes. The Wizards fared better eight days later in a 95-92 home win, but even that one was atypical. Both teams shot worse than 40 percent from the field, and the normally stingy Hawks had just given up 123 points at home to the Lakers, who were actually playing well at the time. The election hadn’t even happened yet, so don’t think about these games for too long.
The next meeting took place on January 28 at Philips Arena. The Wizards rolled to a 112-86 win for their 10th in 12 games, with all five starters scoring at least 15 points and the Hawks shooting a paltry 36.1 percent from the field. The final Washington win was a little closer — 104-100 on March 22 — but it came in the midst of the Hawks’ late-season dip with Millsap out. If there’s a positive sign for the Hawks in that one, it’s that they managed to hold the Wizards to just 40 points in the first half.
Likely Starting Lineups
Washington’s entire plan starts with the backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal. Their fifth year together was a special one, with Wall fulfilling his potential to become one of the sport’s best point guards and Beal finding his place as a 23-ppg scorer. They are perhaps the most physically dominant of any elite backcourt in the NBA, and the Wizards don’t have a chance in any series if they’re not playing at a high level.
The rest of the team finds its roles around them. Otto Porter Jr. has shifted his reputation from supposed bust to legitimate weapon — his 43.1 three-point percentage ranked fifth in the league. Stretch four Markieff Morris is a capable scorer, as well, and center Marcin Gortat still averages a double-double at 33 years old.
Everything gets dicier once Scott Brooks goes to his bench. Midseason pickups Bojan Bogdanovic and Brandon Jennings could provide notable secondary scoring in a couple playoff wins, but it also wouldn’t be a terrible surprise to see them go 1-of-7 in a loss. Second-year wing Kelly Oubre Jr. is an active wing who can finish at the rim, Jason Smith learned a three-point shot to transition into life as a stretchier big, and center Ian Mahinmi provides a modicum of rim protection. These players can all help, but the Wizards are going to live and die with the performance of their starters.
The Hawks are more difficult to predict. Point guard Dennis Schröder is the team’s unquestioned x-factor, and his ability to be a steady contributor in this series could end up deciding how long Atlanta lasts. Shooting guard Tim Hardaway Jr. has started since Kyle Korver left town and shown that he can offer 20 points on most nights.
The frontcourt is more established. Paul Millsap is a legitimate star, even if his game doesn’t scream it, and Kent Bazemore is now more quality wing than meme (though he’s still pretty good in that role, too). Dwight Howard is never going to be taken entirely seriously again, but teams could do far worse with him in the middle. If he had a different name, we’d talk about him as underrated.
The bench contains plenty of useful players, too. Ersan Ilysaova is a quality stretch big, Mike Dunleavy is an excellent outside shooter, and Thabo Sefolosha remains a sturdy defender. Rookie forwards Taurean Prince and DeAndre Bembry can have their moments, too, although it’s unlikely they’ll be asked to do too much in this series. Veteran point guard Jose Calderon was a late-season pickup and could offer a few minutes whenever Schröder needs a break.
• Schröder vs. Wall. Both teams will go as their point guards go. For the Hawks, that means Schröder will have to make good decisions, focus on tempo control over the potential for a great play, and pick his spots to score. This is his first playoff series as the team’s starter, but he’s held a key role in this situation before and not always impressed in these areas. More than any other part of this season, this is the time when Atlanta’s decision to trust in Schröder over the long term will be tested most.
For the Wizards, the answer to the importance of this matchup is much simpler — Wall has to be the best player in the series. This team now emphatically belongs to him, and stars of his caliber are expected to perform in the postseason. A regular season in which he rose to new heights will quickly be forgotten if he stumbles against an inferior opponent. Anything less than a commanding performance will feel like a disappointment.
• Whose style wins out? This series offers a contrast in strengths. The Wizards are at their best in an open, free-flowing game in which Wall and Beal have space to operate. Meanwhile, the Hawks thrive when their defense can grind up opponents and Millsap stumbles his way into 25 points and a near-triple-double. The aforementioned point guard matchup is simultaneously a question of which team best imposes its will on the series. Will Wall and Beal have to figure out how to solve Atlanta in the halfcourt? Or will they be able to get up and down the court, sucker Schröder into joining them, and finish off the Hawks in just a few games?
Past matchups tell us that the Hawks may have a better chance of playing the game at their preferred pace. The Wizards only managed to score more than 105 points once in four games against the Hawks this season, and many of those matchups featured ugly shooting numbers on both sides. Washington can turn it over a lot when things aren’t going right, and forcing Wall and Co. into making poor choices when no passing lanes are there could be their best shot at a series win.
• Howard vs. whatever the Wizards try to do inside. The Wizards are not an especially good interior team. Gortat puts up good numbers and Mahinmi can be useful when healthy, but these players do not constitute the strength of a playoff team. They’re important, to be sure, but not at the core of what the Wizards do.
In other words, this should be a matchup that a player of Dwight Howard’s ability dominates. While Howard is no longer the Elite Defense of One he was in his Orlando prime (with Gortat as his backup), he remains a very good defender who can control the glass nearly by himself. No one expects Howard to average 30 and 20 in a series anymore (except Shaq, maybe), so he should be freed from those past expectations and allowed to do what he does best. If he doesn’t expect a few more years of candy jokes and little else.
How the Wizards Can Win
Chiefly, Wall and Beal have to show up and prove the regular season was no fluke. A lot is riding on their ability to star in this series, and not doing so will probably mean an early exit for the Wizards. Wall needs to be the best player on the court, and Beal can’t finish much lower than third.
Everything else is secondary but can at least make for a shorter series. Porter needs to be a consistent three-point threat to space the floor and keep the Hawks defense from collapsing. Morris, Bogdanovic, and others need to be effective secondary scoring options. If all that happens and Gortat does his best to play Howard to something approaching a standstill, we may be looking at a five-gamer.
How the Hawks Can Win
Schröder has to balance his risk-taking with the knowledge that he’s running an offense. Millsap will have to do his best to muck things up at both ends and show Wall and Beal that nothing will come easy. Howard will have to control the paint, and Hardaway will have to average somewhere around 15 points with a solid three-point percentage.
Other than those particularities, the best news for the Hawks is that they only have to win four games out of seven. Playoff analysis usually focus on the fact that each game is so important, but it’s equally true that a high-variance group can screw up terribly three times and still perform will enough in the other four to win a series. The Wizards aren’t so imposing that the Hawks can fall on their face in three road games and have no chance of winning once in D.C. Schröder is exactly the kind of player who can balance three terrible games with four terrific ones. Inconsistency is usually only a death sentence against the elite.
Best Reason to Watch
This series will be defined by how well John Wall plays. When he came out of Kentucky, many of us thought he would be one of the NBA’s best point guards within a few years. It took longer than we expected, but this season announced his arrival. Wall has been the Wizards’ best player in playoff series before, but this one feels different. He has the chance to prove himself on a national stage and show everyone just how much he’s developed. It’s a terrific opportunity.
Prediction: Wizards in 7.
– – – – – – –