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Game 6 Preview: Washington Wizards vs. Atlanta Hawks

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Every time Mike Muscala steps on the court in the Atlanta Hawks-Washington Wizards first round playoff series, John Wall’s eyes grow to the size of Valencia oranges. Dwight Howard has served as a deterrent to shots around the basket but when Muscala is protecting the rim, it’s like an aircraft marshaller signaling the runway is clear for takeoff.

Twice in the last two games in Washington, the Hawks have put Washington’s front court in foul trouble. Twice Atlanta coach Mike Budenholzer has responded by preferring Muscala over Howard in the fourth quarter, and now twice the Hawks have suffered losses in the aftermath. Entering Game 5, the Wizards’ starters averaged fewer than 20 minutes per game as a unit due to foul trouble, according to Rashad Mobley of TruthAboutIt.net. But just as in Game 2, Budenholzer let the Wizards up off the mat.

“With Dwight out of the game, [it] gives us an opportunity to attack even more, because they don’t really have rim protection,” Wall told the Washington Post after Game 2. Budenholzer said he went with a “gut feel” in Game 2 after he left Howard on the bench as Washington closed on a 42-28 run, preferring to have more shooting on the floor. Muscala entered Game 5 shooting 18.8 percent for the series.

Muscala had some nice moments when the Hawks eliminated the Wizards in the second round to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in Atlanta history in 2015. But that was after Wall suffered multiple fractures to his hand and wrist. With Wall healthy and punishing the rim off the dribble, this is a completely different series.

To be fair, Howard was in foul trouble himself, having committed his fifth with 8:21 to play in the fourth quarter. And Ersan Ilyasova, the legitimate third big man the Hawks have sought for years, had his worst game of the series with a -7 plus-minus (that tied Game 4 hero Jose Calderon for game-worst) on 1-for-6 shooting. Wall confirmed to CSN Mid-Atlantic’s J. Michael Falgoust that the Wizards employed a strategy of double-teaming Paul Millsap to help Markieff Morris avoid early foul trouble.

Simply put, the Wizards’ front court can’t defend Millsap and Howard without fouling. Prior to Game 5, the Hawks held a 134-93 advantage in free throw attempts. The low number of post isolations attempted by Washington confirms that Howard is a deterrent at the rim. However, the Wizards held a 28-19 advantage in blocked shots entering Game 5. That trend would continue with Washington registering five blocks to just one for Atlanta. And for the first time in the series, the Wizards attempted more free throws than the Hawks (27-21). Wizards coach Scott Brooks had complained about the free throw discrepancy prior to Game 4.

Nevertheless, with 9:26 to play in the third quarter, Morris committed his fourth foul (three on Millsap, one on Howard). He would check back in with 5:45 to play in the fourth before committing his fifth foul on Millsap with 3:19 to play. Morris received a technical foul for arguing the call but Brooks left him in to close out the fourth.

Budenholzer elected to stay small, sending Kent Bazemore in to replace Muscala. Moments later, Taurean Prince scored to draw the Hawks within 98-96 with 2:51 to play. Washington would outscore Atlanta 5-1 the rest of the way while out-rebounding the Hawks 6-2 as Howard looked on from the bench. After Millsap said “we think we play small ball better than anybody” after Game 2, the Hawks now face a win-or-go-home scenario in Game 6 after Atlanta’s small lineup once again failed to close out.

Calderon was unable to replicate his second quarter heroics from Game 4 as Washington won the quarter 27-24 before winning the third 33-30 and closing out with an even 20-20 fourth. The Hawks led 34-27 in the second quarter before former Vice President Joe Biden was shown on the video board, triggering the loudest ovation of the night and inspiring a 21-9 Wizards run. Just as he did in Game 2, Brandon Jennings cooked Calderon.

The really bad news for the Hawks is that Otto Porter Jr. and Bojan Bogdanovic had their best games of the series. Porter opened the third quarter with back-to-back threes before attacking the rim and drawing the third foul on Howard. Bogdanovic added 14 points and six rebounds. This was countered in part by Hawks small forward Taurean Prince, who became the first player since Tony Parker in 2002 to start his first five career playoff games as a rookie and score in double figures in all of them. However, Kent Bazemore’s six points on 12 shots meant Atlanta came up short on production from the small forward position.

Another new wrinkle, mentioned by Falgoust, was Brooks playing Beal and Jennings together with Beal initiating the offense. As mentioned in our Game 5 preview, Beal, not Wall, has been the Wizards’ most efficient player as the ball handler in the pick and roll. Thus, this adjustment made sense.

But the biggest difference in Game 5 — and one of the factors that will decide the series — is that the Hawks once again showed up in Washington without the mental focus and edge needed to win on the road. Howard didn’t bother to protect the rim on this Kelly Oubre Jr. dunk.

Millsap allowed Jason Smith to get a wide open dunk on a backdoor cut. Prince, whose defense has been outstanding, trotted back on one possession in the first half and allowed Bogdanovic a wide-open three. Atlanta missed seven of 21 free throw attempts. And Bazemore, who was successful on several lob attempts to Howard in Game 4, committed several first-half turnovers, including a lob to Howard that was off target.

Game 6 Prediction:

The easiest prediction for Game 6 is that Marcin Gortat will set at least two moving screens per quarter and none of them will be called. But between Budenholzer’s fascination with Muscala in fourth quarters and Atlanta’s lack of focus in three out of five games, it is apparent that the Wizards want it more. Muscala is arguably the fifth big man and 13th player on Atlanta’s roster. Larry Drew’s decision to play Jannero Pargo over Kirk Hinrich — whom the Hawks traded two first round picks to obtain — in the fourth quarter of Game 3 of Atlanta’s 2012 first round series against the Celtics was more justifiable than playing Muscala over Howard. Hinrich and Pargo were bench players. Howard is a $23 million centerpiece while Muscala is a former second round pick on a minimum contract. This isn’t Muscala’s fault. It’s Coach Budenholzer’s fault. And the Hawks will be going fishing after Game 6 as a consequence.

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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.