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Game 2 Preview: Washington Wizards vs. Atlanta Hawks

Buddy Grizzard breaks down the round one matchup between the Wizards and Hawks, and picks Game 2.

Buddy Grizzard

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When the Atlanta Hawks signed Dwight Howard to a three-year, $70.5 million contract last summer, it was with an eye toward Atlanta’s rebounding issues in the playoffs. The Hawks valued Al Horford for his versatility, but his 15 total rebounds during Cleveland’s 4-0 sweep prompted a re-evaluation of Atlanta’s deficiencies. Howard was supposed to bring rebounding and rim protection, but in a 114-107 defeat by the Washington Wizards in Game 1 of the first round, younger legs prevailed around the basket.

The Hawks won the rebound battle 48-42, but ultimately lost the war in part thanks to a 9-3 Wizards advantage in blocked shots, led by four from Markieff Morris. Washington’s starting power forward is known for his versatile, inside-out offensive game, but not widely known for his defense. If trends from Game 1 continue, that’s going to prompt yet another re-evaluation. During a decisive third quarter — which the Wizards won 38-28 to erase a halftime deficit — Morris blocked Ersan Ilyasova and Howard on a single possession, then outraced both for an emphatic dunk on the other end.

Morris finished his first career playoff game with 21 points on 19 shots and seven rebounds, earning universal praise from coach Scott Brooks and teammates after the game. One person less thrilled with the physical nature of the game was Paul Millsap, who exchanged words with Morris at the end of the first half.

“We were playing basketball,” Millsap said after the game. “They were playing MMA.”

The Hawks were once known as a San Antonio-style pace-and-space team, but Game 1 reinforced how much things have changed. Even before a mid-season trade that sent Kyle Korver to the Cavaliers, the Hawks had already fallen way off in long-range proficiency. To compound things, Millsap pointed out that Atlanta also had pace issues.

“We broke 100 points tonight so, offensively, I think we did a pretty decent job,” said Millsap. “I think they may have gotten like 20-something more shots up than us.”

In fact, the Wizards got up 100 field goal attempts to just 78 for Atlanta. That’s huge, but the Hawks’ inability to guard the pick and roll may be a larger issue. CSN Mid-Atlantic’s J. Michael Falgoust (a must-follow for the series) tweeted several examples of Howard’s soft coverage on the ball handler that led to wide-open pull-up shots for John Wall from midrange, his bread and butter.

Meanwhile, as Brooks noted, both teams were spatially challenged.

“Neither team could find the three ball consistently tonight,” said Brooks. “Brad missed a lot of shots early. He’s like, you just reboot the computer every five minutes and focus on making the next shot. That’s a sign of his toughness that he brings to our team.”

Both teams shot under 29 percent from three and Beal had a rough first half, limited to 3-for-10 from the field and 1-for-6 from three for seven points. With 7:03 to play in the third quarter, Beal sank a 15-footer off Otto Porter’s assist. Including that shot, Beal would close the game 6-for-9. With Beal struggling, Wall’s playoff career-high 32 points with 14 assists made the difference. The Wizards are now 7-1 in playoff games when Wall records a double-double.

“Not only is he one of the best players at his position, he’s also one of the best players in the league,” said Brooks.

As Wall drove Washington’s relentless attack, the Hawks weren’t nearly as synchronized. Just before halftime, Tim Hardaway Jr. held the ball at the top of the circle, apparently expecting Millsap to set a pick. The play failed to develop and Hardaway forced a bad pass. At the next dead ball, Hardaway was furious, telling Millsap “come on.” Unlike Beal, Hardaway never got it going, finishing with seven points on 2-for-11 shooting. He missed all six three-point attempts.

As mentioned in Basketball Insiders’ Game 1 preview, this series will be a referendum on the 2015 series of draft-day trades that brought Hardaway to Atlanta from the Knicks and sent the 15th pick to Washington, which was used to draft Kelly Oubre Jr. The Wizards’ second-year wing made several key defensive plays and finished with 11 points, three rebounds and two assists to lead Washington’s bench. His three with 8:15 to play helped stave off a late Hawks’ rally, stretching Washington’s lead to 95-83. However, Oubre was a team-worst -16 while Hardaway was -14, so both struggled to impact the final outcome.

Had the Hawks instead drafted Oubre, who was high on many draft boards for his 3-and-D wing potential, they would control his rights for three more seasons on a cheap, rookie-scale contract. Instead, the Hawks may have to decide on matching a huge offer to Hardaway in restricted free agency after signing Kent Bazemore to a four-year, $70 million contract last summer to play essentially the same position. If Hardaway’s performance in Game 1 was a harbinger of things to come, these playoffs could ultimately cost him millions in free agency.

On the positive side, the Hawks got a significant boost from the bench in the first half. Atlanta closed the first quarter on a 21-7 run after Ersan Ilyasova and Mike Muscala checked in with 4:33 remaining. Four of five reserves in Mike Budenholzer’s 10-deep playoff rotation had a positive plus-minus, and the unit outscored Washington’s bench 35-15.

Budenhozer’s decision to stay with Prince and Hardaway in the starting lineup was surprising, but Prince proved he belonged with 14 points, six rebounds and a -4 that was easily best among the starters. Hardaway could be in danger of losing the starting shooting guard position to Bazemore, who led the bench with 12 points and three assists. Atlanta needs its wings to get it going because Beal may not have many games in the series where he shoots as poorly.

Meanwhile, the Wizards have a new two-way weapon in Morris who may be the difference in the series. Wall said after the game that Morris changed the Wizards from the day he arrived.

“He changed everything right away for us,” said Wall. “We didn’t have to double-team in the post anymore. If any team had a four man that could score, we could go right back to him and he could score on the perimeter or in the post. When he’s playing as well as he did today for us, we’re unstoppable.”

With Gortat adding more two-way prowess behind Morris — and Beal, Porter and Wall capable of erupting at any time — it’s hard to argue with Wall. There’s just one thing that should temper Wall’s enthusiasm.

After Prince hit a three to draw Atlanta within 108-103 with 2:06 to play, Howard deflected a pass, creating a loose ball under the basket. Porter recovered it and was fouled by Bazemore. If not for the luck of the bounce, the Hawks might have recovered with the opportunity to make it a one-possession game. Despite all of Atlanta’s struggles and all the great things Washington did, this was a tight game.

Game 2 Prediction: Wizards take a 2-0 lead as the series shifts to Atlanta.

Notes:

Thabo Sefolosha, Atlanta’s starting small forward for much of the season, did not appear in Game 1. Budenholzer said after the game that Sefolosha is healthy and will have a role in the series.

Since 2014, the Wizards are 9-1 in first-round playoff games. Only the Cavaliers (9-0) have a better record in the first round over that period.

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

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Mitchell Robinson May Prove Competence of Scott Perry

Scott Perry is still fairly new on the job, but it’s impossible to argue with the early returns.

Moke Hamilton

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With some eye-popping performances, the neophyte simultaneously caught the attention of the New York Knicks and front offices and scouts across the league.

Sure, merely a few weeks ago, he was largely considered an unknown quantity, but after an impressive stint at the Las Vegas Summer League, we all know his name.

It’s Mitchell Robinson.

Like his fellow rookie Kevin Knox, in short order, Robinson has caused quite a bit of a stir.

He’s just the latest example of things that Scott Perry has done right.

As players like Brook Lopez and Isaiah Thomas accept contracts barely worth enough to buy LeBron James lunch on a consistent basis, the predictions of a “nuclear winter” for NBA free agents seem to have mostly come to fruition.

For the past two summers, general managers and team executives have spent their money as if it were on fire, and as a result, we’ve seen many of the league’s teams watch their flexibility go up in smoke.

Since hiring Perry, the Knicks have done the opposite. Time and time again, the message tossed around internally at Penn Plaza has mirrored what we’ve been told publicly—the Knicks believe they will have a serious shot at signing a marquee free agent in 2019 and have put their emphasis on shedding salary to the best of their abilities.

It took all of one summer league game for us to learn that the club had signed Robinson to a team-friendly four-year contract. According to the New York Post, the deal is only guaranteed for three years and $4.8 million. If Robinson comes anywhere near the productivity he showed in summer league, the value and return on investment will be remarkably high.

So if you’re keeping count, let the record fairly reflect that Perry’s major moves for the Knicks have been trading Carmelo Anthony, hiring David Fizdale, drafting Kevin Knox and Robinson, and subsequently strategically managing his salary cap situation so that he could offer Robinson a contract that was so advantageous to the Knicks that some believe Robinson fired his agent as a result.

With the Knicks, Robinson will have to earn playing time and beat out Enes Kanter and Luke Kornet for minutes, but Kanter isn’t considered to be a core member for the club’s future, so the task doesn’t appear that difficult.

What this all means in the end is that Knox and Robinson will combine to earn just $5.4 million next season.

And what it also means for the Knicks is that the performance of Knox and Robinson at the Las Vegas Summer League isn’t the only thing the club should be celebrating.

It’s fair at this point to say that Perry has both improved the team’s future prospects and made a few moves that at least appear to have been the right decision.

Of course, time will tell, but on the continuum of unknown quantity to certain conclusion, the best you can hope for is a positive sign.

Perry has given Knicks fans quite a few. And when you realize that the selection that the club used to grab Robinson was a critical piece of the trade that sent Carmelo Anthony to Oklahoma City—a trade executed by Perry—that statement becomes all the more credible.

* * * * * *

It’s been quite some time since the Knicks had two rookies who opened eyes the way Knox and Robinson have. What’s been most pleasing about the two, however, have been the ways in which they complement one another on the basketball court.

Knox has impressed mostly with what he’s done on the ball, while Robinson has for what he’s accomplished off of it. The instincts and timing that Robinson has in conjunction with his athleticism are quite reminiscent of Marcus Camby.

In hindsight, we can fairly proclaim Camby to have been ahead of his time. Camby was the prototype to which players like Tyson Chandler and DeAndre Jordan aspired.

As a big man, Camby was one of the few players in the NBA who could capably guard all five positions on the basketball court and wasn’t at the mercy of an opposing point guard when switched out on a pick-and-roll. His nimbleness and second jump ability were remarkable for a man his size, and it didn’t take long for him to find his niche playing alongside more offensively talented players such as Allan Houston, Latrell Sprewell and Larry Johnson.

We don’t know if Robinson himself will succeed in the NBA, but we do know that his archetype is the kind that does. So much of what gets young players drafted and paid in the NBA is about physics. If a guy can do one or two things better than other players his size, the job of his coaches and front office is to find ways to maximize those advantages and fit them within a team concept to exploit inferior players at his position.

That concept has been where the Golden State Warriors have run circles around the rest of the league. So no, while you can’t conclude that Robinson is going to end up being anything near the player that Marcus Camby was, what you can conclude is that he has the physical gifts to be effective. Whether he ends up being effective will ultimately boil down to what Robinson has inside of him and what David Fizdale is able to do to bring it out.

Rest assured, though, to this point, Scott Perry has certainly done his job.

That much is a fact.

* * * * * *

Of all words in the English language, “irony” and its adjective (“ironic”) are among those that are most often misused. Irony is often confused with coincidence.

In its simplest term, irony is meant to describe a situation where there’s an occurrence that’s the opposite of what should have been expected.

In other words, just a few weeks after Carmelo Anthony dropped a career-high 62 points on the Charlotte Hornets at Madison Square Garden, a reporter asked him whether it was “ironic” that the Hornets also yielded 61 points to his buddy LeBron James in Miami.

That wasn’t ironic. That was just Charlotte.

On the other hand, irony was more along the lines of the Denver Nuggets seemingly becoming a better and more cohesive team after Anthony’s talents had been traded to New York.

To do you one better, a more recent example of irony can be found in the fact that Isaiah Thomas was traded by the Boston Celtics after recording the highest single-season scoring average of all time among player shorter than six-foot tall.

Irony is fans of the Los Angeles Lakers having no choice but to embrace LeBron James after spending the entirety of his existence downplaying his career accomplishments in order to properly exalt Kobe Bryant.

Most appropriately, though, for a fan of the New York Knicks, irony is knowing that, despite Kristaps Porzingis being on the shelf and the Knicks not signing or trading for any big named player, there’s probably more reason to be optimistic about the club’s future than there has been in recent memory.

Yea. That’s irony. The Knicks have always been looking for their savior—before Carmelo Anthony, it was Stephon Marbury.

In it all, who would have thought that the franchise’s savior could end up being Scott Perry?

Like Knox and Robinson, it’s still a bit early to certainly declare that Perry is who will lead the Knicks from the abyss.

But just like Knox and Robinson, to this point, it’d be quite difficult to argue with the early returns

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Looking For A Few Great Voices!

From time to time we have open chairs at Basketball Insiders for writers looking to gain experience, grow their brand and to be part of an aggressive up-tempo content team.

Basketball Insiders

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Looking For A Few Great Voices!

From time to time we have open chairs at Basketball Insiders for writers looking to gain experience, grow their brand and to be part of an aggressive up-tempo content team.

We are considering adding up to four new voices in 2018, and what we are looking for is very specific.

Here are the criteria:
– A body of professional work that reflects an understanding of the NBA and basketball.
– Must live within 30 minutes of an NBA team other than in New York & LA; we are full in those markets.
– Must be willing to write two to three times per week on various topics as assigned.
– Must write in AP style and meet assigned deadlines.
– Be willing to appear in Podcasts and Video projects as needed and scheduled.
– Have a strong understanding of social media and its role in audience development.
– Be willing to work in a demanding virtual team environment.

Some things to know and consider:
– We are not hiring full-time people. If you are seeking a full-time gig, this is not that.
– This will be a low or non-compensation role initially. We need to understand your value and fit.
– We have a long track record of creating opportunities for those that excel in our program.
– This will be a lengthy interview and evaluation process. We take this very seriously, so should you.
– If you are not committed to being great, this is not the right situation for you.

If you are interested, please follow these specific instructions, Drop us an e-mail with:

Your Name:

The NBA Market You Live Near:

And Why We Should Consider You:

We do not need your resume, but a few links to work you have done under the above information would be helpful. E-mail that to openings2018@basketballinsiders.com

 

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NBA Daily: Yuta Watanabe Using Versatility, Defense To Push Forward

Undrafted forward Yuta Watanabe impressed all week at Summer League for the Brooklyn Nets — now he’s ready to do whatever it takes to get an NBA opportunity.

Ben Nadeau

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Heading into Las Vegas Summer League, it finally became difficult to look past the Brooklyn Nets. After three-straight seasons merely existing in the equivalency of basketball purgatory, the Nets brought an exciting, young roster out west — one that included Caris LeVert, Jarrett Allen and their two recent first-round selections, Dzanan Musa and Rodions Kurucs. But when three of the four marquee names ended up watching from the sidelines, Brooklyn needed somebody to save the day — and as it turned out, his name was Yuta Watanabe.

Watanabe, 23, was an undrafted four-year senior out of George Washington this summer, but very quickly, the 6-foot-9 prospect has made a name for himself. Through his five games in Vegas, Watanabe averaged 9.4 points, 4.2 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game on 41 percent from the floor, while nearly leading the banged-up Nets in minutes along the way. And although they were the only winless team in Vegas, Watanabe was a major bright spot for Brooklyn and said that he felt himself improving early in the process.

“Yeah, I’m starting to get comfortable,” Watanabe said following a recent Summer League defeat. “Our teammates didn’t know each other and we didn’t play well today — but fourth quarter, I thought we played together. I could attack the rim more, so I think I’m getting comfortable right now.”

Of course, Watanabe’s eye-opening stretch is not an indictment on every other franchise for not taking a late flier on the Japanese-born shooter either. With front offices looking to lengthen and shape the careers of their draftees at every turn, seniors are often passed up in favor of younger potential. In 2018 alone, only 11 seniors were selected at all — Grayson Allen and Chandler Hutchison were the lone first-rounders — a number down two from the year prior.

In spite of his pre-draft workouts and favorable numbers at George Washington (16.3 points, 6.1 rebounds, 1.6 blocks per game), Watanabe was always a long-shot to get drafted. But given the inroads to the NBA via the G-League or a two-way contract, Watanabe is far from finished in chasing his professional dreams.

“I was so excited — right after the draft, my agent called me and he told me: ‘You’re playing with the Nets.’” Watanabe told Basketball Insiders. “I was so excited, also he told me that there was going to be a lot of international players. As an international player, I was like so hyped.”

And it’s true, the Nets — led by general manager Sean Marks, a native New Zealander — have made a concerted effort to search out and acquire talent however possible. Watanabe was joined on the roster by the aforementioned Musa and Kurucs, of Bosnia and Latvia, respectively, Shawn Dawson of Israel, Ding Yanyuhang of China and Juan Pablo Vaulet, an Argentinian stash that’s one of the final holdovers from the last front office regime.

But while Watanabe may not hold a guaranteed contract, his noteworthy run with the Nets in Vegas could put him in pole position to earn one of those elusive two-way deals. Last season, the Nets ended the year with James Webb III and Milton Doyle, the latter of which the franchise tendered a qualifying offer to late last month, as their two-way assets. Still, things can change awfully fast in the NBA and Watanabe definitively fills two needs that Brooklyn has long sought-after since Marks took over in February of 2016: Multi-positional defense and reliable three-point shooting.

During his final season at George Washington, Watanabe hit on 36.4 percent of his long-range attempts and averaged 1.6 blocks per game as well — fully transforming into the flexible prospect he is today. In fact, the Nets have struggled to find consistent three-point shooting in the frontcourt since Brook Lopez was traded to the Los Angeles Lakers last summer, so Watanabe could be useful at that tricky stretch four position.

Although it’d be a new adventure for the defensive-minded grinder, Watanabe is up for it all the same.

“I mean, that’s one of my strengths, versatility is one of my strengths. If they want me to play four, I’m fine with that,” Watanabe said. “If I can hit shots — I’m 6-foot-9, long, athletic, so I have no problem playing the four.”

Of the nine Nets players to make one or more three-pointers per game last season, just two of them — Quincy Acy and Dante Cunningham — regularly slotted in at power forward. And beyond that, only Joe Harris, Nik Stauskas, Allen Crabbe, DeMarre Carroll and Cunningham finished their 2017-18 campaigns with a higher three-point percentage than Watanabe. As a team, the Nets tossed up 35.7 three-pointers per game — second-most in the NBA — and converted on just 35.6 percent of them, a rate that left them in the league basement.

Meanwhile, out in the Atlantic 10 conference, George Washington made just 5.5 shots from downtown per game, with Watanabe accounting for 1.7 of them on his own. Certainly, nobody expects Watanabe to immediately continue that success at the NBA level — but there’s a precedence and fit here within a franchise that’s been laser-focused on player development as of late.

On top of all that, Watanabe is the reigning winner of the A-10 Defensive Player of the Year Award and he proved it out in Vegas. Following his final game against the Indiana Pacers on Friday, the former Colonial finished with a total of blocked eight shots and defended both guards and forwards throughout the tournament — a facet of his game that Watanabe takes pride in.

“Defense is also [one of] my strengths in college too,” Watanabe said. “I can’t remember how many blocks I got today, but I was able to show that I can play defense — even at the four.”

The recent acquisitions of Kenneth Faried and Darrell Arthur will make Watanabe’s path to a big-league opportunity that much harder — but the Nets have also benefitted from a strong G-League affiliate in recent seasons as well. So even if Watanabe doesn’t receive a two-way contract, he may have landed with a franchise well-suited to bring the very best out of him.

Should Watanabe ever reach the NBA, he’d be just the second-ever from Japan to do so — following in the footsteps of Yuta Tabuse, a 5-foot-9 point guard that played in four games for the Phoenix Suns back in 2004-05. But for now, Watanabe is all about helping out his new franchise in whatever way he can — whether that’s from behind the arc or below the rim.

“Make some open shots, play defense and just play as hard as possible — so I think that’s my job right now.”

Nobody knows what the future holds for Watanabe quite yet — but as of now, he’s doing exactly that.

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