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Game 3 Preview: Washington Wizards vs. Atlanta Hawks

Buddy Grizzard breaks down the round one matchup between the Wizards and Hawks, and picks Game 3.

Buddy Grizzard

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If there’s one thing that’s predictable about the remainder of the Atlanta Hawks-Washington Wizards first round playoff series, it’s that Markieff Morris is unlikely to reprise his “double MMA” comment he made ahead of Washington’s 109-101 win Wednesday to take a 2-0 series lead. After Hawks power forward Paul Millsap complained that “they were playing MMA” after Atlanta’s loss in Game 1, Morris told the Washington Post he planned to turn up the physicality in Game 2.

“I guess if that’s MMA, then what we do next might be double MMA,” said Morris.

Officials Marc Davis, Sean Corbin and David Guthrie responded by calling 55 fouls in Game 2. Morris picked up his second foul less than five minutes into the game and was limited to 20 minutes and three points on three shots. The whistle became so frequent that “ref you suck” chants rained down on the officiating crew. One person who wasn’t complaining was Millsap, who said, “I liked it” when asked about the physical nature of Game 2 and how it was officiated.

“It was a tricky game to coach because you were coaching foul trouble,” said Wizards coach Scott Brooks.

Another trend to watch for in Saturday’s Game 3 — as the series shifts to Philips Arena in Atlanta — is turnovers, which have haunted the Hawks. Atlanta committed 19 turnovers to just 12 for Washington in Game 1, followed by 18 for the Hawks and 11 for the Wizards in Game 2. The Hawks trailed 101-98 after Tim Hardaway Jr.’s 12-footer with 2:32 to play in the fourth quarter of Game 2 and were within five points with less than two minutes to play in Game 1. Both games have been tight, so the turnover differential has been costly for Atlanta.

“We’re at our best, just like they are, when [we] get steals and force turnovers,” said Brooks.

Washington has been able to take advantage with a veteran backcourt against Hawks point guard Dennis Schroder and shooting guard Hardaway — both starting in the playoffs for the first time. Atlanta has been outscored by 16.5 points per 100 possessions in former Laker Jose Calderon’s 16 minutes for the series, the fourth-worst net rating among Hawks with at least 10 minutes.

Atlanta’s backup point guard position has been so unsettled this season that Budenholzer has at times gone without a point guard and allowed Hardaway and Kent Bazemore to initiate the offense. Budenholzer tried that configuration to disastrous effect in Game 2. Atlanta opened the second quarter with Hardaway and Bazemore joining Ersan Ilyasova, Mike Dunleavy and Mike Muscala. Bazemore turned the ball over to open consecutive possessions, and Budenholzer called timeout to get Calderon in the game less than two minutes into the quarter.

The issue cropped up again in the fourth quarter as Wall drew a charge on Bazemore for a turnover then followed with an 18-footer to stretch Washington’s lead to 101-96 with 2:47 to play. Moments later, Wall knocked the ball away from Bazemore and ran out for a dunk that made it 103-98 with 1:07 to play. Twice the Hawks were within three points in the game’s final three minutes, and twice Wall forced turnovers against Bazemore and converted baskets that made it a two-possession game.

But Atlanta’s guards and wings are not alone in their struggles. For the series, Atlanta is being outscored by 19 points per 100 with Howard on court and nearly 21 with Millsap. In general, the starters have been outperformed by the Wizards’ superior unit and have needed contributions from the bench to keep games close. However, Howard was much better in Game 2, posting a +4.7 net rating that was best among Hawks with double-digit minutes. Strangely, after Muscala subbed in for Howard with 3:38 to play in the third and the Hawks leading 73-67, Howard did not appear again, totaling just 20 minutes. Atlanta was outscored 42-28 the rest of the way.

“They had some foul trouble and they were playing a lot of small lineups,” said Budenholzer when asked why Howard played so little. “It was just a little bit of a gut feel and trying to keep a little bit more shooting, a little bit more space [on the court].”

Millsap liked the strategy.

“We think we play small ball better than anybody in the league,” he said from the podium.

But Howard had few answers in the postgame locker room, answering a series of questions with, “I don’t know.”

While Budenholzer continues to tinker with strategy, one aspect that’s been under-reported has been Beal’s defense in limiting Hardaway to 7-for-26 shooting. The Hawks are scoring just 86 points per 100 possessions with Hardaway on court but 127.8 when he’s on the bench.

“We’ve finally really locked in defensively the last two games, which is something we’ve been talking about for a while,” said Brooks. “I’m proud of the way Brad played, because he didn’t shoot the ball well but he competed. He didn’t give in to a bad shooting night.”

And while Marcin Gortat’s pair of double-doubles has made life difficult for Atlanta’s front court — and Wall and Beal are a handful for anyone — don’t think Budenholzer has forgotten about Otto Porter Jr. Among the league’s most accurate three point shooters, Porter has been relatively quiet, scoring 10 points in Game 1 followed by four in Game 2. Despite the slow offensive start, Porter’s +32.7 on court net rating is the best in the series.

“Our attention to Otto Porter is pretty significant,” said Budenholzer. “I think he’s been a big part of kind of how their team has evolved and grown this year. I think because Otto Porter’s such a good three point shooter over the course of the season, our guys are aware of it. We’re trying to limit his opportunities.”

Game 3 Prediction: Wizards take a 3-0 lead. Atlanta’s backcourt is simply too inexperienced to compete with a pair of stars at the peak of their careers. Additionally, Millsap and Howard are in the bottom three in net rating for Atlanta in the series, ahead of only Hardaway among Hawks with at least 10 minutes played. Look for Washington to make this a short series.

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

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NBA Daily: Meet Chimezie Metu, A Versatile Big Man

Chimezie Metu could end up being one of the steals of this year’s draft.

David Yapkowitz

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Each year when it comes to the NBA draft, there always seems to a few players flying under the radar a bit. Players who are underrated or overlooked for whatever reason. This year, one of those players is Chimezie Metu from the University of Southern California.

In early mock drafts, Metu was projected to go anywhere from mid to late first-round. In some of the more recent mocks, he’s fallen out of the first-round altogether and into the second-round. If those projections hold and he does end up being selected in the second-round, then some team is going to get a huge steal.

Metu is a versatile big man who impacts both ends of the floor. He is an agile shot blocker who can control the paint defensively, and on the other end, he can score in the post while being able to step out and knock down mid-range jump shots. He is confident in what he’ll be able to bring to an NBA team.

“I think being versatile and being able to make an impact on defense right away,” Metu told reporters at the NBA Draft Combine this past week. “Being able to switch on to smaller players or guard the post, and just being able to knock down shots or make plays when I’m called upon.”

In his three years at USC, Metu blossomed into one of the best players in the Pac-12 conference. This past season, he led a solid Trojans team in scoring with 15.7 points per game on 52.3 percent shooting. He also led the team in rebounding with 7.4 per game and had a team-high 59 blocked shots.

He’s taken note of some of the best big men in the NBA, some of whom he’s tried to model his game after. He told reporters at the combine that some of his biggest influences are Anthony Davis, Karl-Anthony Towns and Joel Embiid. He knows that there may be misconceptions about his game, or those that doubt him, but he isn’t worried about that at all.

“I don’t really worry about what other people are saying about myself. I just go out there and play hard, and try to help my team win games,” Metu said. “My strength is being versatile, being able to impact the game in multiple ways. Not being one dimensional and being able to have fingerprints on different parts of the game.”

It’s been busy past few days for Metu. He’s had 13 interviews with NBA teams to go along with workouts, medical testing and media availability. Although it’s been a hectic time, part of what has made it so worthwhile is all of the NBA personnel he’s been able to interact with. What really has stood out to him being at the combine is the difference between college and the NBA.

“I can just go up to the owners and the GMs and just talk to them,” Metu said. “Coming from college you basically have to act like they’re not there, cause of the rules and stuff. Just the fact that they can come up and talk to you, you can talk to them, that’s probably the most surprising part for me.”

Aside from all the front office personnel he’s interacted with, Metu has also had the opportunity to meet with some of the most respected names in NBA history. Among the former players who he’s had a chance to meet with, Magic Johnson and Bob McAdoo have definitely stood out to him.

While he’s grateful just to have been able to meet NBA royalty, he’s used it as an opportunity to pick their brains. He’s also been able to showcase his game in front of them. He is confident that he’s been able to impress them and hopefully make an impact on their decisions come draft night.

“Just coming out here and having fun, there’s a lot of basketball royalty,” Metu said. “Being able to get a chance to shake their hands, being able to take stuff from them and what helped them become great. I’m just trying to take their advice. It feels great because never in a million years did I think I’d be here. It’s fun just going out there and showing what I can do.”

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The Case for Upperclassmen in the NBA Draft

College upperclassmen are becoming increasingly viable options in the NBA Draft, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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Each year when the NBA draft comes around, there seems to be an aversion to taking upperclassman with a top selection. More specifically, it’s college seniors who often find themselves getting drafted in the second-round if at all.

It can be understandable. NBA teams are clearly looking for a home run pick with a lottery selection. They’re looking for a player who they can build a foundation around for years to come. College seniors often project as solid role players to strengthen a team once that foundational superstar is already in place.

However, recent years have seen the entire first round dominated almost entirely by freshmen and sophomores. In 2017, a college senior wasn’t drafted until the San Antonio Spurs took Derrick White with the 29th pick. The Los Angeles Lakers followed that up with Josh Hart. Hart ended up having a better rookie season than a few of the underclassmen taken ahead of him.

A few other upperclassmen, Frank Mason III, a senior, and Dillon Brooks, a junior, both had better rookie seasons than many of the freshmen taking before them as well. Junior Semi Ojeleye is playing a major role for the Boston Celtics who are in the Eastern Conference Finals.

In 2016, Malcolm Brogdon, another college senior, was taken in the second-round with the 36th pick by the Milwaukee Bucks. He went on to win the Rookie of the Year award and was a starter for a playoff team.

Senior Tyrone Wallace was taken with the last pick in the draft at No. 60 that year. When a rash of injuries hit the Los Angeles Clippers this season, Wallace stepped in right away as a starter at times and helped keep the team afloat in the playoff picture.

There were a few college seniors that went undrafted in 2016, players such as Fred VanVleet Yogi Ferrell that have had better NBA careers to this point that a lot of the underclassmen taken ahead of them.

This isn’t to say that NBA teams should completely abandon taking young, underdeveloped players in the first-round. The Spurs took Dejounte Murray, a freshman point guard, over Brogdon, Wallace, VanVleet and Ferrell. That’s worked out well for them. It’s more a testament to having a good front office and scouting team than anything else.

But maybe NBA teams should start expanding their horizons when it comes to the draft. There appears to be a stigma of sorts when it comes to upperclassmen, particularly college seniors. If a guy can play, he can play. Of course, college production is often not the best means of judging NBA success, but it does count for something.

With the 2018 NBA draft about one month away, there are a few interesting names to look at when it comes to college seniors. Players such as Devonte’ Graham from Kansas, Theo Pinson from North Carolina, Chandler Hutchinson from Boise State, Jevon Carter from West Virginia and Bonzie Colson from Notre Dame are all guys that should be on NBA team’s radars.

Sure, none of those guys are going to turn into a superstar or even an All-Star. But you’re probably going to get a player that becomes a solid contributor for years to come.

Again, it’s understandable when teams take projects in the lottery. After a long season of losing, and in some cases years of losing, ownership and the fanbase are hungry for results. They don’t want a top pick to be used on a player that projects as only a solid contributor.

But after the lottery, the rest of the draft gets a little murky. A good front office will find an NBA caliber player whether he’s a freshman or a senior. The NBA Draft isn’t an exact science. Nothing is ever for sure and no player is guaranteed to become the player they’re projected to be.

College upperclassmen tend to be more physically developed and mentally mature for the NBA game. If what you’re looking for is someone who will step right in and produce for a winning team, then instead of wasting a pick on the unknown, it might be better to go with the sure thing.

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NBA Daily: Are the Houston Rockets in Trouble?

Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals may have been the perfect storm for Houston, writes Shane Rhodes.

Shane Rhodes

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The Houston Rockets took a gut punch from the Golden State Warriors, but they responded in Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals.

After they dropped the first game of the series, Houston evened things up at one apiece Wednesday night with a 127-105 blowout win over Golden State. With the Warriors struggling on the offensive end and Houston rebounding from a less than stellar Game 1, the Rockets rolled through the game with relative ease.

But was their improved demonstration a fluke? While fans may not want to hear it, Game 2 may have been the perfect storm for Houston.

The Rockets’ gameplan didn’t change much from Game 1 to 2. They attacked Steph Curry relentlessly on the offensive end, James Harden and Chris Paul took plenty of shots in isolation and their role players got shots to drop that just weren’t going down in Game 1. Eric Gordon, Trevor Ariza and P.J. Tucker exploded for 68 points while shooting 66.7 percent from three after scoring just 24 the previous game. The trio averaged only 35.8 points collectively during the regular season.

Meanwhile, Golden State couldn’t buy a bucket; starting Warriors not named Kevin Durant scored just 35 points. Curry shot just 1-8 from downtown while Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Andre Iguadola combined for just 19 points while shooting 35 percent from the floor. All of that will undoubtedly change.

So, going back to Oakland for Game 3, where do the Rockets find themselves? Not in a great place, unfortunately.

Golden State did their job: they stole a game — and home-court advantage — from the Rockets at the Toyota Center. Now, as the series shifts back to Oracle Arena and, assuming the Warriors return to form in front of their home crowd, Houston will have their work more than cut out for them. If Curry, Thompson and Durant all have their shot falling, there isn’t much the Rockets can do to keep up

The Warriors, aside from Curry, played great team defense in Game 2, something that will likely continue into Game 3. The Rockets hit plenty of tough, contested shots — shots that won’t drop as they move away from the energy of the home crowd and shots that Golden State would gladly have Houston take again and again and again. Harden and Paul didn’t exactly bring their A-game in Game 2 either — the two combined for a solid 43 points but took an inefficient 38 shots to get there. If the two of them play like that at Oracle, the Warriors will abuse them in transition, something that can’t happen if the Rockets want to steal back the home-court advantage.

The aforementioned trio of Gordon, Ariza and Tucker are unlikely to replicate their Game 2 performance as well, and relying on them to do so would be foolish on the part of Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni. Devising a game plan that will keep the offense moving while not leaning heavily on the role players will be of the utmost importance — if the offense returns to the bogged down effort that Houston gave in Game 1, the Rockets stand no chance.

Meanwhile, Warriors head coach Steve Kerr will likely adjust his defense in an effort to limit the Rockets effectiveness in the isolation while also trying to find somewhere to hide Curry on the defensive end. It almost certainly won’t be the same sets that Houston throttled in Game 2 which will take another toll on the Rockets offense, especially if they fail to execute.

Not everything looks bad for Houston, however. Faced with a do-or-die scenario, Harden, Paul and co. were the more aggressive team from the jump. Pushing the pace flustered the Warriors and forced some pretty bad turnovers consistently throughout the night. If they come out with the same kind of energy and pace, the Rockets could have Golden State on their heels as they did in Game 2.

Budding star Clint Capela also has plenty of room to improve his game, as he has averaged just 8.5 points and eight rebounds through the first two games of the series — the Rockets need him to play his best basketball of the season if they want a chance to win.

Still, the Warriors are virtually unbeatable at home. The team has lost three games this postseason, just four times over their last two playoff trips and not once at Oracle, making the Rockets’ task even more daunting than it already was. Like Game 2, Game 3 should be played as a do-or-die situation for the Rockets because, if they don’t come out with the same aggressive, up-tempo energy, things could be over quickly.

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