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Game 6 Preview: Washington Wizards vs. Atlanta Hawks

Buddy Grizzard breaks down the round one matchup between the Wizards and Hawks, and picks Game 6.

Buddy Grizzard

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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.

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

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NBA

NBA Daily: Marcus Morris Thriving Off Bench

Marcus Morris has been one of the Clippers’ most dependable reserves this season, David Yapkowitz breaks it down.

David Yapkowitz

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When Marcus Morris Sr. came over to the Los Angeles Clippers last season near the trade deadline, he stepped right into the starting lineup at power forward. He started all 19 regular season games – including the bubble – and when the team re-signed him this past offseason, he looked like a lock to remain in the starting lineup.

But he’s been one of the main anchors of the Clippers’ second unit this year and coming off the bench was something he requested of new head coach Tyronn Lue. Along with Lou Williams, the pair have spearheaded one of the most formidable bench units in the NBA. The pair has combined for 24.8 points per game on the season and they’re both shooting lights out from three-point range.

On a call last month with media, Morris admitted that this dynamic pairing with Williams was exactly what he was envisioning when he initially asked to be part of the second unit.

“Building that chemistry with me and him both coming off the bench, we’ve to be one of, if not the best bench in the league. Both of us are proven vets, proven scorers in this league,” Morris said. “I think our camaraderie, us being really good friends, I think that helps on the court. Not just scoring but just being vets, being able to talk and being able to lead our unit.”

As well as he’s played this season, it wasn’t always such a smooth transition to the Clippers. Morris’ numbers dropped last year from his career averages and he shot 31 percent from the three-point line; the lowest he’s shot since his second year in the NBA. Like most of the team, he faded a bit during the team’s second-round playoff debacle against the Denver Nuggets.

This season, although his scoring isn’t as high as it used to be at 12.4 points per game, Morris’ shooting has been much more efficient. His 46.3 percent from downtown is a career-high. He looks much more comfortable in the flow of the offense and he’s played his role to perfection. Naturally, Morris credits Lue with helping him establish his role.

“I think the biggest difference is just having that exact from [Tyronn Lue] just talking to me and telling me exactly what he’s wanting me to do. Last year, I thought I was a lot of times in no man’s land, I couldn’t really put my finger on my role,” Morris said.

This year, I’m coming off the bench to be aggressive, coming off to bring energy, shoot the ball, the guys I’m playing with just playing off them. Lou does a great job of drawing the defense and you have to have guys that can knock it down. I’m just here to do whatever it takes, whether it’s to bring energy or to score.”

Morris began the season missing the first eight games due to a knee injury. But he’s always been one of the more durable players in the league and since then, he only sat out one game. Thankfully for him, he didn’t end up needing surgery only rest.

Lue has been quite pleased with Morris’ contributions this season. He credited Morris’ conditioning while acknowledging the extra work he’s put in to be as effective as he has.

“Just putting in the work, just trying to get his body right, just trying to adjust to the speed of the game, when you’ve been out for so long it is kind of tough to just step back in and play well,” Lue said. “We’ve been needing and asking more from him in the post, rebounding the basketball and, of course, shooting the basketball. He’s been great and he’s been putting in the work. You see the results.”

Like the rest of the team, Morris has been able to shut out any lingering effects from the bubble. He knows the Clippers have championship aspirations this season and, because of the way they flamed out in the playoffs, there will doubt as to whether this team is capable of winning a title.

“Seeing how many people jumped ship last year, I think it definitely helped us. That’s how it works when you have a good team and doesn’t work, people tend to jump off the ship,” Morris said. “We get back to work and we get a championship, people will jump back on the ship. That’s just how it works. We are going to continue to find our camaraderie and we are going to continue to get better. Come playoff time, we’re going to be ready.”

And for the Clippers to win their first championship in franchise history, they’re going to need Morris to be at his best. His versatility is key to their attack, while that ability to stretch the floor with his three-point shooting –plus putting the ball on the floor or posting up – is a big part of what makes the Clippers so dangerous.

He’s willing to do whatever needs to be done.

“I’m a hooper. Whatever you need me to do. One thing I do, I don’t just talk,” Morris said. “I’m just playing. I’ve been in the league for a long time, going on my eleventh year. It doesn’t change for me. One thing you’ll find out about me is I’m never too high, never too low.”

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NBA AM: Defensive Player of the Year Watch

Will we see Rudy Gobert win another Defensive Player of the Year Award? Or will we have a new winner this year?

Dylan Thayer

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In the fourth edition of the Defensive Player of the Year Rankings, Basketball Insiders continues to look at the players excelling on the defensive side of the ball. The Utah Jazz continues to be a powerhouse in the Western Conference amidst a surprising season, and they will still be well represented in these rankings. But there’s another newcomer to the list, an MVP-caliber player looking to lead his team to the NBA Finals. Ready to take look at the rankings? Let’s get into it.

1. Rudy Gobert (Previous: 2)

The 28-year-old center out of France is one of the best defensive big men the game has seen in recent years – and this year is another example of that as Gobert has been the anchor of the best team in the NBA. Better, he has been a vital piece to their unanticipated success by taking part in all 35 of the Jazz games thus far.

Looking at Gobert’s numbers, he is still second in the league in blocks with 2.8 blocks per game, trailing only Myles Turner in that category.  Gobert has had three or more blocks in 18 games, even reaching four in 12 of them. 

In the defensive rating category, Gobert ranks third in the league with a rating of 103.0, per NBA Advanced Stats. This number is just enough behind Lebron James at 102.6 and teammate Mike Conley, who leads the NBA with a rating of 100.8. These three players are also in the top three for defensive win shares, with Gobert sitting in third with a DWS of 0.154. Gobert should be the current frontrunner as he has led the best team in the NBA on defense through the first half of the season. 

2. LeBron James (Previous: 4)

As a reminder, LeBron James has not made an All-Defensive Team since 2014. How about breaking that streak with a DPotY award as well? He very well could.

Without Anthony Davis, James is unarguably the tone-setter for the defense. The Los Angeles Lakers’ victory over the Portland Trail Blazers on Feb. 26 is a prime example of this. During that contest, James had 3 blocks and 4 steals as the Lakers won by 9. Furthermore, James has managed to average 1 block and 1.3 steals per game since the injury to Davis.

Notably, James ranks in the top three in both defensive rating and defensive win shares. James is just behind Conley in defensive rating at 102.6 compared to Conley’s 100.8 rating. Keep an eye on James’s defensive impact for the defending champs as the season continues to unfold.

3. Joel Embiid (Previous: N/A)

Embiid has been very neglected on this list, but now is the time for him to make his appearance. Yes, it is very high for a player to debut on this list, but he’s been on a tear as of late. 

In his career-high night on Feb. 19, Embiid went off for 50 points, 17 rebounds and 4 blocks in a matchup with the Chicago Bulls. This is the game that put the league on notice of Embiid’s brilliant season, both offensively and defensively, as he leads the first-place Philadelphia 76ers. As things stand right now, he’s averaging 1.3 blocks and 1.2 steals per game.

Taking a deeper dive into Embiid’s floor presence is what makes him stand out. He’s 13th in the NBA in defensive rating at 106.6. He also ranks 10th in defensive win shares with 0.131, per NBA Advanced Stats. The coaching change in Philadelphia has allowed Embiid to run the Sixers’ offense and, as things stand right now, he’s certainly in both the MVP and DPotY conversation. 

4. Mike Conley (Previous: 1)

Since an extended absence, Conley returned to make an instant impact in the Jazz lineup, averaging 2.0 steals over his last five games. The unexpected success has been due in large part to Conley’s improved play. Of course, Conley is high up on this year’s All-Star snub list, but his significant individual improvements won’t go unnoticed here.

Conley is currently tied for third in the league in steals per game at 1.5. He is also first in defensive rating with a rating of 100.8. Beyond that, he then ranks second in defensive win shares with 0.168. Without Conley, it’s hard to see the Jazz having the success they’ve enjoyed this year. Watch out for him as the season approaches the midpoint as he tries to become the first guard to win the award since Gary Payton during the 1995-96 season. 

5. Myles Turner (Previous: 3)

Despite a slip in the standings for the Indiana Pacers, Myles Turner has been a very bright spot for the team defensively. He leads the league in blocks with 3.4 per game and has a pretty sizeable lead over Gobert in that category. Add in the fact that he is averaging 1.1 steals per game, it’s easy to see why Turner is so high in these rankings.

If the Pacers can manage to get things back in order amidst a sub-.500 record thus far, Turner could rise into the upper part of these rankings again.

Honorable Mention: Giannis Antetokounmpo (Previous: N/A)

While voter fatigue may hinder the chance of Giannis earning his second consecutive DPotY award, he should be in the conversation again. The Milwaukee Bucks are amongst the top three in the Eastern Conference standings, thanks to the stellar defensive play from the two-time MVP. 

It will be interesting to see where he finishes in the voting after the season’s end. Maybe he gets this award for a second-straight year, while the voter fatigue towards him takes place in the MVP ballots.

While these rankings have gotten competitive as of late, there’s still plenty of time for rising and falling in Basketball Insiders’ weekly Defensive Player of the Year rundown.

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NBA

NBA PM: The Wizards Are Good Now?

The Washington Wizards went from 5-15 to 13-18 out of nowhere. Much improved from their early-season play they make a run? Dylan Thayer examines.

Dylan Thayer

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After the swap of John Wall and Russell Westbrook, the Washington Wizards did not look like they were going to be a playoff team. 20 games into the season, the team found themselves at 5-15 with trade rumors constantly buzzing. At one point, they even had the worst record in the NBA, while looked like a trade of Westbrook, Bradley Beal or even both was a certainty with the team was set to pivot into a true rebuild.

Now, all of a sudden, Washington has the look of a team that could make the postseason play-in game. 8-5 in their last 13 with wins over the Boston Celtics, Denver Nuggets, Portland Trail Blazers and Los Angeles Lakers, the Wizards have started to climb the conference, now just 2.5 games back on the Charlotte Hornets for the East’s eighth seed.

But what’s changed? Let’s take a step back and look at what exactly made them start the season out so slowly.

Early in the year, the former MVP Westbrook was playing through a left quad injury. He wasn’t nearly explosive with the ball as he’s always been, settling for low-percentage jumpers and outside shots, perhaps the biggest weakness in his game. Between the injury and COVID-19 postponements, Westbrook and many other Wizards were away from the court for a significant time — the whole team was in flux.

Then, on Valentine’s Day, the team took the floor in Boston and destroyed the Celtics; the 104-91 final doesn’t truly reflect that, but at one point the Wizards led by as many as 25. A national game beatdown, their play led into the best stretch the Wizards have seen this season.

Westbrook, over his injury, looked like his former explosive self. He’s posted six triple-doubles since, while he came within a point or assist of doing so in three other contests. And, back on the court, the entire team was also able to spend some time together, which allowed them to further jell as a unit and build some momentum toward future games.

It was a surprise when Beal came out and said he did not want to be traded from Washington, with more than a few curious as to how the NBA’s leading scorer could be satisfied with such subpar play from the rest of his roster. But he “shared a consistent viewpoint” with the team, according to Shams Charania, as to what they have done to build around him. The Wizards’ clear leader, Beal has signaled he’s in it for the long-haul, while additions like Westbrook should only serve to solidify that commitment.

Beyond their two stars, the Wizards roster has also stepped up in their most recent stretch. Sophomore Rui Hachimura has proven capable alongside the star-duo in the first unit, while Robin Lopez has stepped up in the absence of Thomas Bryant, who was lost for the season to a torn ACL. Deni Avdija and Garrison Matthews have both flashed as well, with Matthews shooting 41.3 percent from three and even earning a starting role.

If they can sustain their recent success, Washington could easily make the postseason in an underwhelming Eastern Conference. In fact, the tightly-packed nature of the East — while they’re 2.5 games behind Charlotte, just four games separate the Wizards and the fourth seed Celtics — should only serve to benefit Washington in their quest for their first postseason berth since the 2017-18 season. And, if the Wizards want to bolster their team for a playoff run and look to buy at the deadline, they certainly have the pieces to make some interesting moves. With most of their draft capital for the foreseeable future, along with some interesting contracts they could flip for more win-now type players, anything could happen.

The Beal-Westbrook, while it started rough, has not nearly been as bad as most people would think. For the team, the 2020-21 season has proven more promising than they may have thought and, if they can continue to elevate their game, don’t be shocked to see the Wizards on the big stage come May.

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