It’s easy to get caught up in the podium battle. With Washington Wizards starting power forward Markieff Morris calling his Atlanta Hawks counterpart Paul Millsap a “crybaby,” and Millsap responding that Morris should “take his loss and go back to the hotel,” it’d be easy enough to focus here exclusively. But the real story of the Hawks-Wizards first round playoff series is that, for the first time, the Hawks have attained the mental edge that Washington monopolized in Games 1 & 2.
Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer said his guys were locked in from the jump ball.
“I think they were coaching themselves as much as anything tonight,” said Budenholzer. “Everybody was talking in timeouts. Everybody was talking on the bench and understanding how important it was that we don’t do anything that doesn’t give us great efficiency on both ends.”
That type of focus helped the Hawks jump out to an early 19-4 lead and a lead as high as 25 in the first quarter. Budenholzer drew criticism for playing Dwight Howard only 20 minutes in Game 2 as Washington closed on a 42-28 run. This time Budenholzer seemed to push all the right buttons, including timeouts that helped slow Washington’s momentum when it threatened to close within single digits.
“A couple of timeouts it just felt like, just try and stop any run they might be on, make sure we gather ourselves [and] get refocused, hopefully come out with a good possession,” said Budenholzer.
Wizards coach Scott Brooks said he was disappointed in his team’s defensive effort for the first time in the series.
“We’ve got to make sure that we challenge the ball, challenge the shots, we challenge everything on the floor,” said Brooks. “They were the desperate team. They were down 0-2 coming home. I didn’t like our defense. We did so much better defensively the last two games.”
Brooks added that poor shooting early in the game impacted Washington’s defense.
“We came out missing shots, but we let that affect our defense,” said Brooks. “That’s happened before with us during the season and it’s not pretty. We have to make sure that, if we don’t make shots, they’re not making shots. The 38 points [Atlanta scored in the first quarter] is not a good indicator of that. We were hoping that they missed instead of making them miss. We just couldn’t ever recover from the bad start.”
Budenholzer also noted that improved transition defense was another key for Atlanta, while acknowledging how difficult that task is while facing Wizards point guard John Wall.
“You have to give John Wall credit for what he does in transition, the speed and the force and power that he plays with,” said Budenholzer. “You just cannot relax for a second. You’ve got to be committed to stopping him and keeping him away from the basket in transition. The first half, there were too many examples where we didn’t do that. In the second half, I think we were better.
“Then finding the shooters is kind of your second layer against John Wall,” Budenholzer continued. “Hopefully as the series goes on we’re getting better about limiting the threes in transition and finding shooters in transition.”
Brooks also noted Bradley Beal’s continued shooting struggles as a factor in the series.
“He’s just going to have to keep shooting them,” said Brooks. “We’re going to have to keep getting him open looks like he has. Every player will go through a stretch of games where he’s not going to shoot the ball well. He’ll bounce back. He’s a big winner and he’s going to come out and make shots, hopefully the next game.”
For Atlanta, one of the biggest factors in making this a series was committing only 11 turnovers after committing 18 in Game 1 and 19 in Game 2.
“When we’re playing more aggressive, playing with more pace and the ball is moving, that’s actually when we turn it over less,” said Budenholzer.
Other factors included Atlanta outscoring Washington 60-34 in the paint and Dennis Schroder becoming the first player in franchise history to score at least 20 points in his first three playoff starts. Something else that could loom large in Game 4 is that Wizards starting small forward Otto Porter Jr. left Game 3 with a neck strain and did not return. His status for Game 4 is not known as of this writing.
Game 4 Prediction: With Markieff Morris seemingly more concerned about winning the war of words than winning the battle on the court, Atlanta has finally shown the mental focus needed to challenge Washington in this series. The Hawks will tie the series 2-2 ahead of what should be a pivotal Game 5 in Washington.
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