5:30 PM EST, TNT – Line: Hawks -2.5, Over/Under: 209.5
It’s desperate times in Atlanta, Georgia, as the Hawks look to avoid falling into an insurmountable three-game hole against the Washington Wizards in Game Three of the First Round of the Playoffs from Phillips Arena. In terms of this particular matchup, the Wizards (49-33, 4th in Eastern Conference) certainly own the momentum, having not only won the first two games of this series, but five straight meetings dating back to the Regular Season. Despite a dismally slow 6-12 start to the campaign, this team came together under the guidance of Head Coach Scott Brooks, now in his first term in the Nation’s Capital, winning twenty-five out of thirty-two contests at one point during a midseason stretch. In that time, Washington has evolved into one of the more potent offensive teams in the league, averaging 109.2 points (5th Overall) on 47.5% shooting from the field (3rd Overall), including 51.6% from inside the arc (7th Overall) and 37.2% beyond it (8th Overall), while dishing out a healthy 23.9 assists (6th Overall). Their dynamic young Backcourt featuring the likes of John Wall (23.1 PTS, 451% FG, 32.7% 3FG, 4.2 REB, 10.7 AST, 2.0 STL) and Bradley Beal (23.1 PTS, 48.2% FG, 40.4% 3FG, 3.1 REB, 3.5 AST, 1.1 STL) have become one the league’s most envious, with the former earning his fourth All-Star Selection this year, and the latter putting it all together in his first true healthy season as a professional. It’s these two studs that have thus far spearheaded the assault on the Hawks, for Wall and Beal have accounted for fifty-four points in Game One (114-107) and a whopping sixty-three points in Game Two (109-101). In fact, Wall found himself in some rather exclusive company after his performance in Game Two, accumulating thirty-two points and fourteen assists, becoming the first player to post such figures in the Postseason since 2011, and only the fourth player to do so in the last eighteen years. In Game Two’s victory, the Wizards made a living off of their counterpart’s mistakes, turning eighteen turnovers into twenty-three points, while eviscerating the visiting side in the open court, owning a sizable 16-4 advantage in Fast Break Points. However, despite all the flash and flair, the difference thus far has been Washington’s willingness to roll up their sleeves and get physical with Atlanta, who packs plenty of size and length in their Frontcourt; undeterred, the hosts kept it relatively even in terms of Points in the Paint (Minus-4), while relegating their opponent to just 40.5% shooting from the field, including a scant 4-of-20 from downtown (20.0%), and seventeen assists, while totaling an impressive eleven blocked shots and ten steals. Coming into this series, Brooks needed Marcin Gortat (10.8 PTS, 57.9% FG, 10.3 REB, 1.5 AST, 0.8 BLK) to make his presence felt against the likes of Dwight Howard (more on him later), and the Polish Hammer has not disappointed, embarrassing his more celebrated counterpart with fourteen points on an efficient 7-of-10 shooting (70.0%), with ten rebounds (six offensive), three assists, a steal, and a staggering five blocks, which was nearly as many as the Hawks had as a team (six). It also helps that this team is receiving a much-improved contribution from their Bench, which up until the Trade Deadline had been arguably their most glaring weakness. The additions of Bojan Bogdanovic (12.7 PTS, 45.7% FG, 39.1% 3FG, 3.1 REB, 0.8 AST) and Brandon Jennings (3.5 PTS, 27.4% FG, 1.9 REB, 4.7 AST) have made a positive impact on the Reserves, with the latter adding ten points on 4-of-5 shooting from the field (80.0%), along with four rebounds, and a pair of assists in just over sixteen minutes of play. It should be interesting to see if Washington will continue to get such play from their Bench as the series shifts southward, but as long as they continue to dictate the way the game is going to be played, it will no longer be a matter of if they advance to the next round, but when they do so.
Meanwhile, at some point here in the near future the Hawks (43-39, 5th in Eastern Conference) are going to have to wake up and realize that they’re in the process of getting punked. Perhaps a return home will motivate them, but through two games they’re getting beaten in nearly every phase of the game courtesy of the Wizards. Then again, perhaps not; in the history of the NBA Playoffs only eighteen teams have managed to erase a 2-0 deficit and go on to win a series. Not impossible, but not quite probable either. Thus far, Atlanta has struggled to find much of a flow on the offensive end of the court, shooting a poor 42.0% from the field, including a miserable 11-of-45 from beyond the arc (24.4%), while racking up more turnovers (thirty-seven) than assists (thirty-five). If you haven’t noticed, this particular incarnation of Mike Budenholzer’s charges is a far cry from the unit that won sixty games two years ago largely on the strength of a balanced, efficient offense that sent four players to the All-Star Game. Then again, you’d be hard-pressed to even recognize anyone from that group of Birds, as Paul Millsap (18.1 PTS, 44.2% FG, 31.1% 3FG, 7.7 REB, 3.7 AST, 1.3 STL, 0.9 BLK) is the only one remaining with the likes of Jeff Teague, Al Horford, and Kyle Korver all having flown the coup (pun intended) over the last nine months. No, these Hawks are decisively less efficient offensively, averaging 103.2 points (22nd Overall) on 45.1% shooting from the field (18th Overall), including 50.1% from within the arc (14th Overall) and 34.1% beyond it (23rd Overall), while ranking near the bottom of league in turnovers (15.8, 28th Overall). Granted, they’ve been one of the better teams this season on the defensive side of things, ranking tenth in Points Allowed (104.0), fifth in Field Goal Percentage Allowed (44.4%), sixth in Two-Point Field Goal Percentage Allowed (49.1%), ninth in Rebounding (44.4), and seventh in Steals (8.2), all the while committing the sixth-fewest fouls overall (18.2). The addition of the aforementioned Howard (13.5 PTS, 63.3% FG, 12.7 REB, 1.4 AST, 0.9 STL, 1.2 BLK) has had a good deal to do with this, but as we stated earlier, you’d be hard-pressed to realize any of this after watching the first two games of this series. Atlanta has yielded 111.5 points on 45.2% shooting from the field, while permitting 25.0 assists, and have allowed Wall and Beal to carve them up for an average of 58.5 points a night. The biggest issue for Budenholer’s outfit is that they just can’t take care of the damn ball; the Hawks have committed fourteen more turnovers than the Wizards, which has been a direct catalyst for their disadvantage in Fast Break Points, where they’ve been outscored 41-20. While these guys are comfortable at operating at a fast pace (they averaged 97.4 possessions per 48 minutes, ranking tenth overall, which was actually ahead than Washington), they are clearly at a loss when things speed up against Wall and Co. Simply put, it’s a bad matchup. The only way they’re going to be able to avoid falling into a deeper hole, is to slow the pace to a crawl, where Howard and Millsap can get to work in the Paint. And speaking of Howard, the eight-time All-Star and three-time Defensive Player of the Year had better rewind the clock, for he has been nearly invisible thus far; averaging 6.5 points on 45.5% shooting in 24.5 minutes of play is asinine for a player with his credentials. You’re thirty-one Dwight, not forty-one. GET IT TOGETHER MAN!!! One way that Atlanta can slow things down is by getting to the Free-Throw Line, which they’ve done with regularity all season (24.9 FTA, 5th Overall) and in this series, where they’ve netted 65-of-77 attempts (84.4%), twenty-five more than their opponent.