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.
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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.
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.
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