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.
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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.
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