Roundtable: Five questions heading into #WizHawks

The Wizards and Hawks will begin their best of seven series on Sunday at 1pm. Here’s the series schedule:

*If Necessary 

Our digital team gets you ready for the opening round series with five pressing questions and a series prediction.

1. What can we
take away from the four games of the regular season?

Zach Rosen (ZR):
Considering two of the four games were in the first two weeks of the season,
it’s tough to conclude much from those first two games, yet alone all four. The
Hawks used a big fourth quarter to take down the Wizards in Atlanta, and the
Wizards got their first win of the season at home the following week. That’s
about it for those two. On January 27, the Wizards won by 26 in Atlanta, their
largest win of the season. The Hawks were held to 36.1% from the field, all
five Wizards starters scored in double figures, and Otto Porter Jr. had 21
points and 12 rebounds. That’s a pretty good recipe for success to beat any
team: hold them to under 40% shooting and hold their starters to 42 points.
Then on March 22, the most recent contest, Paul Millsap did not play and the
Wizards had a big fourth quarter to “get their swag back,” as Bradley Beal
called it. The Wizards held the Hawks to under 40% shooting again and were able
to play the game at their pace in the fourth.

My biggest takeaway? When the Wizards play sound defense and
force turnovers, they’re really tough to beat. That’s about it; regular season
games played months apart can only mean so much. 

Chris Gehring (CG): The Hawks don’t lean that heavily on one player. With the Wizards, you can pretty much bank on John Wall or Bradley Beal to be the leading scorer on any given night. Where Atlanta’s concerned, the leader could really be any one of about six candidates. They’re led by Paul Millsap’s 18 points per game, but eight different players have led the team in scoring in a game this season. That’s good and bad for Atlanta, as we’ve seen that they lack a go-to scorer late in games (on display in the last meeting in March). We also know that the balanced scoring attack comes from good ball movement – a hallmark of Mike Budenholzer’s teams – when the Hawks are at their best, and that checks out with their top-10 ranking in assists this season.

Jacob Raim (JR): I’m actually not sure we can take away too much. The Hawks won the opener as the Wizards stumbled out of the gate. Korver shot the Hawks out of the second game going 1/9 from the field, and he’s not on the team anymore as Washington won by three. The third game saw the Wizards demolish Atlanta, as Millsap and Schroder were complete non-factors. Obviously if Millsap and Schroder don’t show up in this series, it’s going to last about four games. Finally the last matchup of the season was a tight one, and Millsap was out injured. That was our first really good look at Tim Hardaway Jr., who lit the Wizards up for 29 and he’s clearly going to be a factor in this series.

2. What are the Wizards’ three keys to winning
the series?

ZR: There are always more than three keys, but here are my three big ones. 

1. Win the battle
in the backcourt, as they should. John Wall and Bradley Beal are both All-Star
caliber guards and should be able to find success against the Hawks’ backcourt.

2. Contain Dwight Howard, especially with Ian Mahinmi missing
the start of the playoffs. Howard has dominated the Wizards on the boards
outside of the last game of the season, and Marcin Gortat will need to step up
to contain Howard.

3. Limit Atlanta from beyond the arc. Almost every player in
the Hawks’ rotation can shoot the 3-ball, but the Wizards stymied the Hawks’
3-point attack in the last two meetings of the season.

CG: Where the Hawks are concerned, it’s contesting Dwight Howard and Paul Millsap in the paint and having defensive intensity to disrupt Atlanta’s half-court offensive flow. For the Wizards, it’s using that to jumpstart the fast break. Washington scores 14.6 percent of its points on the break, the fourth-highest mark in the NBA. The Wizards also score 16.2 percent of their points off turnovers, another top-10 mark. They’re at their best when they’re disruptive and dictating the pace. That philosophy would make things particularly difficult for the Hawks.

JR: 1. Play the game at their tempo. The Hawks will want to slow things down, the Wizards will want to speed things up. If the Wizards play this series at an up-tempo pace, the offensively challenged Hawks will have a really hard time keeping up.

2. Have Playoff Beal show up. During Beal’s first two playoff runs, he put up some historic numbers for somebody as young as he was. Now he’s put his game together, is coming off a career year, and should be ready for a monster series against Atlanta.

3. Let Wall be Wall. If Wall is his usual electric self and owns his matchup with Schroder, this series favors the Wizards in a big way. Wall is the best player in the series, probably by a significant margin, and the Hawks shouldn’t have an answer for him.

3. The Wizards have played some of their best
defensive games of the season against the Hawks. Why is that?

ZR: The 26-point win in Atlanta was the lowest an opponent shot
against the Wizards all season. The Wizards made the Hawks’ backcourt beat
them, as Paul Millsap was only 1/7 for four points and Dwight Howard took five
shots total in 29 minutes. Washington dared Atlanta’s guards to beat them, and
I think that gameplan will uphold.

CG: An area that the Wizards have struggled with this season is defending all the way out to the 3-point arc. It’s something Scott Brooks has harped on, and in the Wizards’ favor in this matchup is the fact that the Hawks are in the bottom third of the NBA as far as 3-point shooting and points per game. Still, Atlanta averages just over 103 points per game, and Washington has held them under that mark in the final three games of the season series (and well under it twice). That’s come from limiting Howard’s touches, making the Hawks shoot 3’s and putting them on the free-throw line, where they’re the third-worst team in the NBA. In the each of the final three games between the two teams, Atlanta was sent to the line more than their season average.

JR: I’d like to say it’s because of elite defense, but in reality it might just be the Hawks are not a very good offensive team. The Hawks ranked #27 in the NBA during the regular season in offensive rating.  Outside of the first time these two teams met, the Hawks shot under 40% from the field in each of the matchups. The Wizards need to continue to force the Hawks into jump shots, instead of allowing them to drive or letting Millsap and Howard go to work.  

4.     Who is your x-factor on both teams in this
series?

ZR: The Hawks have a lot of x-factors, but I’ll go with Mike
Muscala. He can play the stretch-5 position for them and allows the Hawks to
space the floor when he’s out there. Thabo Sefolosha is also a defensive
x-factor, especially if he sees time guarding John Wall and/or Bradley Beal. 

For the Wizards, Kelly Oubre Jr. is the x-factor, not only
in this series but the team’s playoff run. The Wizards hope he can keep playing
like he has in his last 10 games with double-figure scoring and sensational
perimeter defense. 

CG: On the Wizards side, it’s Kelly Oubre. We’ve seen how good the Wizards can be when he’s hitting 3-pointers and being a nuisance on the defensive end, and he’ll give Atlanta fits if he does that in this series. For the Hawks, I’ll go with Kent Bazemore. He can be an electric playmaker and has similar length and explosiveness to Oubre. If he gets going, that adds a dimension that would make the Hawks harder to slow down.

JR: I’ll pick both starting centers. Howard owned the glass against Washington during their regular season matchups and for the Hawks to win this series, he’s going to have to be absolutely dominant on both ends of the floor. During the four games between these two teams, Howard averaged 14.3 points and 14.8 rebounds per game. That was playing a tick under 30 minutes per game, and the Wizards will probably see five to seven minutes more of him in the postseason. On the other side, how this matchup goes in the paint will come down almost entirely to Gortat, at least during the first few games. Mahinmi will miss at least the first few, meaning Gortat is going to have tons of one on one time with Howard. If Gortat can contain Howard and limit his effectiveness, it’s very hard to see a way the Hawks win this series. If Howard dominates in the paint and gets the offensively challenged Hawks tons of extra possessions, this series becomes much more interesting.

5. How will Ian Mahinmi’s absence early on impact
the series?

ZR: Mahinmi’s absence is a big deal; Gortat has not had the
easiest time guarding Howard this season, while Mahinmi has the size and physicality to keep Howard
less active inside. Mahinmi is arguably the team’s best defender, so the
Wizards will obviously miss him. Still, with the way the Hawks space the floor
when Muscala is at the 5, Jason Smith or Markieff Morris may be a more natural fit against
Atlanta’s second unit. Hopefully Mahinmi returns in time for the later games in
the series or the second round if the Wizards advance.

CG: The potential absence of Mahinmi hurts in the sense that it’s one less big body to throw at Howard and the Hawks. He’s proven to be a threat on the defensive end and rolling to the rim, but Marcin Gortat is ready for that challenge. He too can attack the rim and play with an edge defensively, and we know he can rebound. Don’t be surprised to see Markieff Morris step up more down low, either. His balanced game and ability to step all the way out beyond the 3-point arc can make it easy to forget about the fact that he’s capable of and willing to battle in the paint. He’ll be ready to do that in this series.

JR: It could have a large impact. Splitting the center minutes between Gortat and Mahinmi was a good way to minimize foul trouble and give Howard a couple of different looks in the paint. Mahinmi was a +22 during the last matchup of the season between these two teams, and was very effective on the glass, grabbing 10 boards in 20 minutes. The Hawks will also be tough to go small against when Howard is in the game, so the Wizards will have to play with two bigs most of the time, further highlighting Mahinmi’s absence.

Finally, What’s your prediction for the series?

ZR: Wizards in six. I think the series will be closer than expected, but the Wizards will prevail simply because they’re a better overall team and have a much better backcourt. 

CG: I’ll go Wizards in six. 

JR: Wizards in six. The Wizards’ edge in the backcourt and offensive firepower is going to be too much for the Hawks to handle.

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