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Game 1 Preview: Washington Wizards vs. Atlanta Hawks

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For a 23-year-old in his first year as a starter, Dennis Schroder has already amassed an impressive collection of beefs with other Eastern Conference point guards. The Atlanta Hawks’ lead guard famously accused Celtics point guard Isaiah Thomas of disparaging his family. Schroder was also quoted by German magazine Bild campaigning for since-departed Jeff Teague’s starting job last season. Schroder would later claim he was misquoted, but he also has history with John Wall, the Washington Wizards point guard he will face Sunday in the opening round of the NBA playoffs.

“I’m still mad about the time I injured my hand,” Wall told CSN Mid-Atlantic of the 2015 second round series Washington lost to Atlanta in six games after he suffered a fractured hand and wrist in Game 1. “That’s still in the back of my mind even though they might have a different team.”

It was Teague who knocked Wall to the floor and precipitated the injury, but Wall will still be motivated. After returning to the series a mere 10 days after suffering multiple fractures, Wall informed the Washington Post that Schroder told Hawks wing Kent Bazemore to hit him on his injured hand during Game 5. As the Wizards waited to see which team it would face in the first round, Wall told CSN Mid-Atlantic that he wanted the Hawks. Now he gets his wish.

In addition to a healthy Wall, the Wizards enter the playoffs coming off the franchise’s most impressive season in decades. When Washington clinched the Southeast Division title, it did so for the first time since 1979. That broke a division title drought that was the longest in major professional sports. The Wizards’ 49-32 record also marks its first 47-win season since 1979. The team also amassed a 17-game home win streak and won back-to-back road games for the first time since 1991.

Washington has one of the NBA’s best backcourts, with Wall combining with shooting guard Bradley Beal to average 46 points per game. Wall’s nearly 11 assists per game are second in the NBA and, per USA Today, the Wizards led the NBA with 27 games in which all five starters scored in double figures. Wall is one of only three NBA players to average a points and assists double-double, and the Wizards were 35-14 when he did so. He also set the Wizards’ record for assists in a season, while Beal set the mark for made threes. Beal and starting small forward Otto Porter were both legitimate candidates for Most Improved Player after both finished in the top 20 in increased Value Over Replacement Player this season.

Thus, Washington is having its best season in recent memory thanks to a balanced scoring attack led by a pair of stars that have learned to play together. Tempering enthusiasm somewhat is a defense ranked in the bottom third, and a rash of recent, relatively minor injuries. Porter missed recent games against Miami and Detroit with back spasms. Wall sat out the Detroit game with a quad contusion and starting power forward Markieff Morris missed a recent game against the Knicks with a sore ankle. The most serious injury was to backup center Ian Mahinmi, who will miss the opening of the series after straining his calf against Detroit.

The defensive woes were of especial concern to Wall, who told CSN entering the final month of the season, “If we don’t figure it out, (we) probably are going to have an early (playoff) exit.”

Although Atlanta’s 43-39 record is unimpressive, that stems from a stretch of nine losses in 11 games that correlated with missed games for power forward Paul Millsap (knee synovitis). A lot will hinge on how that knee holds up. The Hawks have almost the same .580 win percentage with Millsap available in each of the last two seasons. Had Millsap played all 82 games, the Hawks could have been expected to win around nine more games. His 67 games played are his fewest since 2011-12.

On the positive side for Atlanta is a defense that ranks in the top four, and a 5-0 record in overtime games that leads the league. Both teams are in the top four in clutch field goal percentage. And the Hawks finished the season with a flourish that included back-to-back wins over the defending champion Cavaliers and a 123-116 win over top-seeded Boston.

Where the Hawks have really struggled is on offense, especially with Dwight Howard on the floor. While Washington has a top-10 offense, the Hawks rank 27th. Since the All-Star break, Atlanta is scoring 96.5 points per 100 possessions with Howard on court and 106.7 with Howard on the bench. Overall the Hawks are -7.8 points per 100 with Howard on court since the All-Star break, the worst net rating of any Hawk with at least 200 minutes.

The biggest issue with Howard — aside from his 53 percent free throw shooting — is his inefficiency as a post isolation scorer. Howard’s 1.18 points per possession as the roll man in pick and rolls ranks in the top 10 among players with at least 75 such possessions. But Howard has only functioned as the roll man 98 times this season. By contrast, Karl-Anthony Towns has used 363 possessions as the roll man this season for Minnesota. Howard has used 272 post-up possessions this season while scoring a meager .84 points per possession, which ranks in the bottom six among players with at least 200 post-ups.

Howard’s match-up with Wizards center Marcin Gortat will be key, but the most important match-up will be whoever Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer starts opposite Beal. Bazemore and Thabo Sefolosha have struggled with injuries, and both rank just ahead of Howard in net rating since the All-Star break. Meanwhile, Tim Hardaway Jr. has become the regular starter at shooting guard and has been in the team’s top five in net rating (minimum 200 minutes) while increasing his scoring from 13 to 18 points per game post-All-Star.

One interesting subtext to the series will be the play of Wizards reserve wing Kelly Oubre Jr., who fell out of Washington’s rotation until mid-May, then scored in double figures in eight of the team’s final 10 games. Washington drafted Oubre with a pick obtained from the Hawks as part of a series of trades that landed Hardaway in Atlanta. Budenholzer will need a strong series out of Hardaway to prove that he made the right choice.

Another player that has come on strong is Hawks rookie small forward Taurean Prince, who scored in double figures eight times over the season’s final 17 games. Prince barely played before the All-Star break but closed the season with 10 straight starts during which he averaged 11.4 points and 3.9 rebounds. Budenholzer has a huge decision to make: Will he stay with the hot rookie against Porter and deadline acquisition Bojan Bogdanovic (12.7 points on 39 percent shooting from three as a Wizard), or will he move one of the struggling wings — Bazemore or Sefolosha — back into the starting lineup?

While Budenholzer must find the right buttons to push for his struggling team, Scott Brooks is finally getting the credit that was denied him as coach of a star-laden team in Oklahoma City. With Beal and Wall finally getting along, Porter becoming one of the league’s most efficient scorers and young players developing, Brooks’ body of work is getting noticed.

“One of the things [Brooks] showed [in OKC] was that he was really good with developing young players, and you can see that here,” Wizards GM Ernie Grunfeld told The Ringer‘s Katie Baker. “John and Brad have gotten better, Otto has gotten better, Kelly [Oubre Jr.] has gotten better.”

From Wall versus Schroder to a pair of coaching minds that will match wits all series, Hawks-Wizards promises to be a must-watch. One of these teams will go home after a crushing first-round defeat with a long summer to ponder how it all went wrong. For the Hawks, it’s been chaos and for the Wizards, much more consistency. Our pick for Game 1: Wizards.

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About Buddy Grizzard

Buddy Grizzard

Buddy Grizzard has written for ESPN.com and BBallBreakdown and served as an editor for ESPN TrueHoop Network.