The Atlanta Hawks, it’s been proven, do not embrace playing from ahead.
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The East’s top seed gave away home-court advantage in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals on Sunday, blowing an early double-digit lead while allowing the upstart Washington Wizards to dictate the pace. The Hawks appeared to have learned very little from the team’s too-close 4-2 first-round win over the Brooklyn Nets, falling in a 104-98 loss that felt far more one-sided than the score would indicate.
This isn’t to take away from the Wizards, who played a decisive and strident form of basketball, led by lead guard John Wall’s 18 points and 13 assists. Third-year guard Bradley Beal paced the team with 28 points, leaving at one point in the fourth quarter with appeared to be a painful badly sprained right ankle prior to returning.
Beal was crying heading to the locker room. pic.twitter.com/uEFNtYHzoz
— Mark Gunnels (@MarkAGunnels) May 3, 2015
Washington’s offense was not the tipping point, however. The team did well to hit 19 of 22 free throws and only turn the ball over six times, but the squad’s defense was impressive again in the Game 1 victory.
The Wizards ranked fifth among 30 NBA teams in defensive efficiency this season and held the Hawks to just 37-percent shooting in the conquest. The Hawks ranked sixth in offense this season, but Washington continually pushed them out of their offensive sets, forcing staid screen and roll patterns or isolation basketball that barely resembled the Hawks team that won 22 straight at one point during the regular season.
Second-year swingman Otto Porter was especially impressive defensively, diving at cutters and forcing the Hawks to pick up dribbles or second-guess moves. Atlanta swingman Kyle Korver was a clear target for Washington, and though he hit for 13 points in the win, he needed a very un-Korver-like 15 shots to get there. Korver, perhaps the greatest three-point shooter in NBA history, missed eight of 11 shots from long range.
The Hawks usually fearsome frontcourt duo of Al Horford and Paul Millsap also missed 23 of 36 attempts, as Washington hedged and routinely pushed them out of their comfort zones. Though second-year waterbug Dennis Schroeder did well to bust out of his playoff slump with nine points and four assists off the bench, starter Jeff Teague missed 10 of 14 shots and hardly dictated the action.
Washington earned this win, however, beating the Hawks to their expected spots and eliminating the sort of spacing and ball movement that made Atlanta such a chore to play against during the regular season.
For whatever reason, the typically-unheralded Wizards continue to be a killer on the road – the team has won eight of nine playoff contests away from Washington under head coach Randy Wittman. Wittman has been rightfully criticized for his somewhat anachronistic offensive sets, but his crew’s maddening defense and playoff-ready two-man work seem fit to play the spoiler. This is the same crew that upset Chicago in the first round last year and gave the top-seeded Indiana Pacers all it could handle in the second round, and the same pattern seems to be in place during the team’s 2015 run.
The Wizards are the only undefeated team in the Eastern Conference playoff bracket, and though one can lament the Toronto Raptors’ failings and Atlanta’s inability to sustain its regular season joie de vivre, this is a remarkable achievement. The team has managed to cull big plays out of veteran Paul Pierce, the oft-forgotten Drew Gooden, and the oft-hilarious Porter while playing a brand of basketball that looks expertly suited for the postseason.
Whether this sustains or not is up to the Hawks.
It isn’t a slight to point out that Washington (save for, perhaps, the work of Nene Hilario) is working at capacity volume. The Hawks executed just as well in the first half, forcing Washington into moving its feet and thriving on 21 first half points from small forward DeMarre Carroll. That movement went away in the second half, and though the Hawks have six games and a week and a half to figure their act out, this isn’t ideal placement for a Hawk team looking to make the NBA Finals for the first time since the Eisenhower administration.
Credit these Wizards. This just seems to be their time of year. Again.
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