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Game 5 Preview: Washington Wizards vs. Atlanta Hawks

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With the Atlanta Hawks holding serve at home to tie its first round playoff series with the Washington Wizards 2-2, these teams are starting to look fairly evenly matched. To try to predict what may happen as the series becomes a best two out of three — starting tonight at 6 PM at Verizon Center in D.C. — we’ll start with a brief game-by-game recap of the series to this point, followed by a look at some key stats.

First the series recap:

Game 1: Wizards Starters Dominate, 114-107

The Wizards led the NBA during the regular season in instances of all five starters scoring in double figures. In Game 1, it appeared that Washington’s starting unit had asserted itself as a key factor for the series. All five starters scored in double figures, three scored at least 18 and John Wall dominated with 32 points and 14 assists. Four starters posted a plus-minus of at least +18.

By contrast, all five Hawks starters posted a negative plus-minus, four of them by double digits. Atlanta was only able to keep the game close because the bench outscored Washington’s 35-15. Both teams shot under 29 percent from three while Atlanta held a 39-17 advantage in free throw attempts.

Game 2: Wizards Survive “Double MMA,” 109-101

The Wizards appeared to seize control of the series as its back court dominated once again. Wall had 32 again with nine assists and Bradley Beal dominated Atlanta’s Tim Hardaway Jr. with 31 points and a +14 compared to the Atlanta shooting guard’s 19 points and a team-worst -20. This time Washington’s bench showed up, outscoring Atlanta’s 25-14.

Atlanta shot just 20 percent from three while the Wizards shot 32 percent. Washington pushed its advantage in blocked shots to 19-9 for the series while winning the rebound battle 43-41. Free throws were more even with Atlanta holding a 38-33 advantage in attempts. Paul Millsap had 27 points with 10 rebounds for the Hawks while Dennis Schroder scored 23. But it wasn’t enough to prevent falling into a 2-0 series hole.

Dwight Howard played only 20 minutes and did not appear after he checked out with 3:43 to play in the third. In a possible response to Markieff Morris’ “double MMA” comment, the officials called 55 fouls. Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer said he went with a “gut feel” in deciding to go small to match the Wizards as Washington closed on a 42-28 run with Howard out of the game.

Game 3: Hawks Show Up, 116-98

Game 3 marked a shift in the series with Atlanta finally showing the necessary mental focus. After committing 19 turnovers in Game 1 and 18 in Game 2, the Hawks committed only 11 in Game 3. Millsap scored 29 points with 14 rebounds. Schroder added 27 with nine assists and Atlanta’s starters ranged from Schroder’s +18 to Howard’s +24.

The Hawks jumped out to a 25 point lead in the first quarter and at times looked to make it a blowout, but Budenholzer had to call several timeouts to keep the Wizards from closing within single digits. Wall led Washington again with 29 points and seven assists, but all five Wizards starters posted a double-digit negative plus-minus.

Atlanta finally had a decent game from three-point range (36 percent) while the Wizards struggled (24 percent). The Hawks won the rebound battle 50-42 and attempted 32 free throws to only 20 for the Wizards. Atlanta dominated points in the paint 60-34.

Game 4: The Jose Calderon Game, 111-101

All five Hawks starters scored in double figures and Atlanta became the only team in these playoffs with seven players in double figures. But the real story was Jose Calderon’s +29 performance in 20 emergency minutes after Schroder picked up three fouls in the first quarter. Budenholzer was able to hold Schroder out until the start of the second half thanks to Calderon’s game-saving contribution.

Beal once again dominated with 32 points, while Wall’s 22 were his lowest output of the series. Atlanta’s three-point percentage ticked up to an impressive 39 percent while Washington shot a respectable 34 percent. Atlanta kept its turnovers low at 12 while free throw attempts and rebounds were fairly even. Taurean Prince became the first rookie in Hawks history to score in double digits in his first four playoff starts. Atlanta once again won the paint scoring battle 44-30.

Key stats

Wall has crushed the Hawks in transition, scoring 1.52 points per possession in 25 possessions. His efficiency in transition is second only to Normal Powell among players with at least 10 transition possessions in the playoffs. Interestingly it’s Beal — not Wall — who has excelled as the ball handler in pick and rolls (1.21 per, 29 possessions). Beal has also excelled with 1.09 points per on 23 possessions off screens. Schroder has been good in higher volume as the pick and roll ball handler (1.06 per, 49 possessions) and Wall has been fairly average (.91 per, 46 possessions).

Millsap has excelled in the post. He’s the only player in the series with at least 10 possessions in post isolation (19) and he’s scoring 1.05 points per. Howard’s one point per in eight post possessions is a vast improvement over the tepid .84 he scored during the regular season. However, after attempting nearly four post-ups per game in the regular season, Howard is attempting only two per game in the playoffs. No Wizards player has attempted more post-ups than Wall’s three, a sign that Howard’s presence at the rim has discouraged Marcin Gortat and Morris from isolating around the basket.

Game 5 Prediction

Simply put, the Hawks should be up 3-1 in this series heading back to Washington. With the officials whistle-happy in Game 2 after Morris’ “double MMA” comment, the Wizards were in deep foul trouble. But Budenholzer took his foot off the gas, failing to capitalize by punishing the Wizards inside with Howard. His decision to go with Mike Muscala in the fourth quarter over Howard harkens back to his head-scratching decision to stick with a hobbled, under-performing Jeff Teague during last year’s 4-0 sweep by the Cavaliers.

Schroder lit the Cavs up for 27 points on 5-for-10 three-point shooting in Game 1 before Budenholzer astonishingly declined to play him more than 15 minutes the next two games. Schroder finished the series with 21 points in Game 4, but it was too little, too late. Teague finished his Hawks career with a five point, two assist whimper. Had Budenholzer trusted in Atlanta’s youth movement sooner, it might be farther along.

Nevertheless, it is the Wizards who find their backs against the wall. Atlanta has already proven that it can play Washington close in its building. There’s no pressure on the Hawks, who can tie the series again in Game 6 at home if it loses Game 5.

But that won’t happen. The Hawks are going to play loose and confident and steal Game 5 on the road in Washington. The Wizards are too focused on winning the press conference and not focused enough on winning the series.

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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.