Posted by lethalweapon3 in lethalweapon3's Pre-Game Preview Blog, 03 May 2015 - · 12 views
“Seriously, Paul? We just tipped off!”
As Rakim once said, “It’s been a long time.” As Staind once crowed, “It’s been awhile.” As Sam Cooke crooned, “It’s been a long time coming.” Is a change gonna come? For the teams meeting in today’s second-round affair at the Highlight Factory, the Atlanta Hawks and the Washington Wizards (1:00 PM Eastern, ABC, 92.9 FM in ATL), a trip to the NBA’s version of the Final Four seems eons ago, from a time when people endeavored to be the answer on the Soul Train Scramble Board.
The last time the Atlanta Hawks enjoyed a chance to play for a berth in the NBA Finals, they were in the Western Division, way back in 1970. As for Washington, the last time they reached an Eastern Conference final, they were the borderline-non-PC Bullets, defending their conference crown in 1979 before the demise of Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld (and the rise of the Celtics) short-circuited any chance to develop a basketball dynasty.
The preseason favorites to claim the Southeast Division following the departure of LeBron James from South Beach, Washington (46-36) acquired veteran thorn-in-the-side Paul Pierce, got a career-best season from their former #1 pick, point guard John Wall, and wound up with the most victories since that 1978-79 Bullets team won 54 games.
And yet the Wizards still finished 14 games behind division champion Atlanta, who managed a franchise record for victories (60-22) and caught the league off-guard with four All-Star talents and a protégé extraordinaire as a coach. Both teams now have a chance to do away with spotty decades-long legacies and earn a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals. But to get there, one has to one-up the other. It’s the Hawks with homecourt and a leg-up going into this series, winners of three straight head-to-heads against the Wizards before resting starters in the April 12 matchup.
We’ve put Brooklyn in the rear-view mirror, but here’s a tidbit just in case you’re still a bit mad about that lost chance at a 2015 lottery pick. Know that while Hawks fans were hoping to keep the Nets out of the playoffs on the final day of the regular season, a few days before, the Wizards waltzed into Barclays Center, elected to give Wall and injury-riddled forward Nene some rest, and lost 117-80 to a Brooklyn team that was thrashed in Washington 114-77 in February.
Wizards coach Randy Wittman has enough to deal with from Atlanta’s distinctively skilled starters without the prospect of a top-ten draft pick thrown into the mix. So Wall-less Washington allowed the Nets to dish out a season-high 29 assists, put up a season-high 42 fourth-quarter points, and hold the Wizards to a season-low 14 first-quarter points. If the Wizards handled their business in Brooklyn, the Hawks would likely have that lotto pick in hand.
Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer ain’t mad, tho. Coach Bud sat all his starters two days later in D.C., allowing John Jenkins, Dennis Schröder, and Mike Muscala to cut their teeth against the Wizards’ top line. Despite building up a 25-point lead on the Hawks’ reserves in the middle of the third quarter, Washington could not keep Jenkins, Schröder, and Mike Scott from whittling the lead down to nine in the fourth, forcing Wittman to keep starters Wall, Bradley Beal and Marcin Gortat in the game until the very end to avoid a Washington-monumental collapse.
It’s taken five seasons for Wall (career-high 10.0 APG, 2nd in NBA) to fully stake his claim as the second-best passing guard in the NBA. But when it comes to accumulating turnovers, it’s hard to tell whether Wall has reached his ceiling. That’s particularly true against the Hawks, who repeatedly disrupt the speed demon despite otherwise impressive stat lines this season (21.0 PPG, 9.8 APG, 5.3 RPG, 49.2 FG%, season-high 7 3FGs vs. ATL). One can only hope to contain John Wall and, so far, Atlanta has done exactly that.
Wall averaged a whopping 5.6 turnovers in his first three matchups against Jeff Teague (21.7 PPG, 54.5 2FG%, 7.0 APG, 2.0 TOs/game vs. WAS) and the Hawks, then put a rotten cherry on that with ten turnovers against the Hawks’ second-stringers in April. Wall knows precision is essential against a Hawks team (18.3 regular-season PPG off TOs, 4th in NBA) that thrives off of transition opportunities, particularly given his relatively lead-legged teammates don’t always do the best job of getting back on D.
This series features the two leading teams in assist ratios in the East this season (Atlanta’s 19.7 per 100 possessions, Washington’s 18.3 per-100). Yet despite an impressive four-game sweep of the Toronto Raptors last week, only the Bulls have a higher turnover ratio in the postseason than the Wizards (14.8 TOs per 100 possessions). The Hawks will be eager to deflect and disrupt the Wizards’ passing game and to get out on the break.
Key to the series will be the relative execution and defense of the 1-5 pick-and-rolls. Both the Hawks’ Al Horford and the Wizards’ Gortat lead the playoffs with 5.0 PPG as the roll man on P&R possessions, the Polish Hammer benefitting even more from Raptor fouls and And-1 calls during Washington’s first-round series. While Gortat and Nene bedeviled the hack-happy Jonas Valanciunas and Amir Johnson in the opening round, they’ll be dealing with a far more experienced and mature frontcourt in Atlanta.
Schröder will try to bounce back after a disappointing effort versus Brooklyn by improving his execution of the pick-and-roll. 53.3 percent of his playoff possessions have involved being the ball handler off of screens (3rd most in NBA; Teague’s 52.4% ranked 6th), but nearly a quarter of those possessions (22.5%) resulted in turnovers. Schröder struggled with Jarrett Jack in the opening round, and will have to do a better job staying in front of Washington’s Ramon Sessions.
Mike Scott also had an underwhelming series, and will need to keep the Wizards’ Drew Gooden off the three-point line and the offensive boards. Gooden was 0-for-11 on 3FGs coming into this postseason, but hit half of his 14 three-pointers against Toronto.
Horford and Paul Millsap’s early shooting touch will be crucial in keeping the Wizards’ bigs from entrenching themselves around the rim. The Wizards allowed the fewest points during the regular season (39.5 per 100 possessions) from the painted area. Atlanta’s interior shot atempts may not come primarily from the initial penetration but from cuts that come after kicking the ball out. Horford’s 1.64 playoff points per possession off cuts to the hoop leads all remaining NBA players.
DeMarre Carroll has been arguably the biggest X-Factor to this point in the playoffs, and he’ll continue to have his hands full with what is essentially the Flava Flav of the Wizards. Paul Pierce (14-for-24 3FGs vs. TOR) draws so much attention with eccentricities that the wily vet frees up his teammates all across the floor. Pierce will do what he can to get the Junk Yard Dog in the kennel with foul trouble.
Getting Kyle Korver and Carroll to sit would make it hard for the Hawks’ perimeter game to get going, but it would also force matchup issues for Atlanta whenever Otto Porter comes off the bench. The second-year forward struggled to break the rotation in the past two seasons, but broke out in the first round with the third-most floor time of any Wizard (58.8 2FG%, 5-for-10 3FGs in 32 minutes/game).
Despite just one day off after clinching their opening-round series, the Hawks will have plenty of time to rest after their two-game homestand with the Wizards, given three days off before the scene shifts to D.C. To make things easier on the back end of this series, it will be important for the Hawks to hold serve for the opening games at home.
Let’s Go Hawks!