If you adhere to the old adage that a playoff series doesn’t really begin until one team loses at home, then nothing much of consequence has taken place yet in the first-round matchup between the Washington Wizards and Atlanta Hawks. They’ve taken the floor twice in D.C., and the Wizards have won ’em both, because — divergences from the script in Toronto, Los Angeles and especially Boston aside — that’s what’s supposed to happen. Washington defended its home court; now, with the series set to shift to Georgia for Game 3 on Saturday evening, it’s the Hawks’ turn to return the favor.
And yet, despite Hawks forward Paul Millsap’s post-Game 2 insistence that it’s a “0-0” series, those first two games actually do count on the big scoreboard. The Wiz are two wins away from Round 2, and causing real problems for a Hawks club that now sits two losses away from elimination.
Whether or not the Hawks can find any answers before Saturday could determine just how long they’re able to forestall summer vacation. One thing’s for sure, though: Atlanta center Dwight Howard didn’t seem to have any answers after Wednesday’s defeat.
What’s the biggest challenge of playing in an aggressively officiated environment in which refs whistled 55 personal fouls and the two teams shot 71 free throws? “I don’t know.”
Anything Dwight can think of that he would’ve done different in a Game 2 that saw him struggle to six points, seven rebounds, one block, one steal and one assist in just under 20 minutes of floor time? “I don’t know.”
Did all the pre-game talk about “MMA” and “double MMA” physicality impact the way the game was played, or officiated? “It’s just basketball.”
Was this one of the closer playoff games you’ve played? “No.”
Hey, what happened in that fourth quarter, where Bradley Beal went off for 16 of his 31 points? “I don’t know.”
Aaaaand scene. Thanks for the time, Dwight!
To be fair, it’s understandable that Howard might be frustrated after watching the Hawks blow a seven-point third-quarter lead over the final 12 minutes. “Watch” is the operative word there; Dwight sat on the bench for the entire fourth quarter, as the Wiz began making a run behind a smaller, shooting-heavy lineup early in the fourth — Jason Smith at center, Bojan Bogdanovic at power forward, Otto Porter at the three, with Beal and Brandon Jennings in the backcourt — and Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer elected to counter with more perimeter-adept big men like Mike Muscala, Ersan Ilyasova and tweener forwards Millsap and Taurean Prince.
From Chris Vivlamore of the Atlanta Journal Constitution:
The Hawks again used a small lineup to improve their offensive production.
It proved successful late in the game before the fourth-quarter meltdown.
The Hawks were aided by the Wizards’ foul trouble but at times used Millsap at center in the fourth quarter.
“It’s simple,” Millsap said. “Our small ball is better than theirs. We think we play small ball better than anybody in the league. That is one of our better lineups. We can push the tempo. Get up and down the court. I think we have taken advantage of that.” […]
“It spreads the court more,” Budenholzer said. “It gets more ball-handlers, more guys who can get to the paint.”
While the Hawks got their doors blown off without Dwight in the fourth quarter in Game 2, on balance, there’s been something to that in this series. Atlanta’s a minus-16 in Howard’s 49 minutes thus far, and plus-one in 47 minutes with him on the bench. Only three of the nine Hawks lineups that have outscored their Wizards counterparts thus far in the series include Howard in the middle.
The Hawks have played faster (nearly seven more offensive possessions per 48 minutes of non-Dwight time), shot the ball better, turned it over less frequently, and scored more efficiently with him off the floor in the series. They’ve also generally looked better equipped to guard the Wizards’ pick-and-roll attack, and to counter floor-spreading Washington lineups, without the paint-bound Howard along the back line. (This, mostly, tracks with the analysis behind the “de-emphasize Dwight” suggestion offered before the series by longtime Hawks observer Bret LaGree at Hoopinion.) Even Howard’s signature individual skill — rebounding, as he’s pulled down 10.5 rebounds in 24.5 minutes per game against Washington — hasn’t resulted in a net positive, as Atlanta has thus far grabbed a higher percentage of both its own misses and the Wizards’ with Dwight on the pine.
It’s certainly possible that this all reverses course when the series shifts to Atlanta. After all, we’re talking about a 96-minute sample, a minuscule amount of information on which to base big decisions and support sweeping takes. That said, the playoffs as a whole are all about figuring out how to tilt small-sample math in your favor and make the most of whatever matchup advantages you have. Coach Bud’s got to figure out how to better combat the Wizards with Howard in the middle; failing that, he might be forced to adopt an even quicker hook for his $70 million center.
With two games in the books, history is not on Atlanta’s side here …
History is not on the Hawks' side as they return to Atlanta for Game 3. pic.twitter.com/QMfSPUArkE
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) April 20, 2017
… and, unless Budenholzer can come up with something a bit more expansive than what Howard had to offer after Game 2, it seems awful likely to repeat itself.
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