Story by KL Chouinard
1) Stop the Wizards on the fast break
Paul Millsap was the first Hawk to speak after practice Friday, but his key to the series was exactly the same as the one that every other Hawk cited: slowing Washington in transition.
“John Wall is a one-man fast break,” Millsap said, “so we have to show him a lot of bodies.”
Head Coach Mike Budenholzer agreed with Millsap on Wall.
“Individually, he is just so fast, and they get out and run with him,” Budenholzer said. “And he will throw length-of-the-court passes. If we can do something to minimize or keep them out of transition, that is an important first step.”
In the 78 games that he played this season, Wall averaged 23.1 points per game on 45.1 percent shooting. In his four games against. the Hawks however, he averaged 18.5 points on 32.9 percent shooting. The Hawks did reasonably well against Wall during the season, but doing it in the playoffs will prove to be even more of a challenge.
Another interesting aspect is the breakdown by quarter in the games that Wall played against the Hawks. In the first quarter, he averaged only 1.0 point. In the second quarter, he averaged 5.0 points. On the other hand, once Wall found a speck or two of success on the fast break, things opened up for him in the second half. In the four second halves against Atlanta, he averaged 12.5 points.
The Hawks will have their hands full, but keeping a 48-minute attention span on slowing Wall’s fast breaks could pay big dividends.
2) Familiarity isn’t going to help
Dwight Howard and Washington center Marcin Gortat played together on the Orlando Magic for Gortat’s first four seasons in the NBA. Gortat backed up Howard on Magic teams that won six playoff series’ and made it to the 2009 NBA Finals.
Howard was asked if all of the practices, training camps and scrimmages from those seasons bred a sense of familiarity that still remained six years after the last time they teamed up.
“It’s a different game,” Howard said. “There are different systems and stuff like that. There’s too much (going on) to focus on the past. The moment is right now.”
3) Make threes
While the Hawks had a winning record against five of the seven teams in the Eastern Conference playoffs (including Boston, Cleveland and Toronto), they only won one of four games against the Wizards this season. One massive swing factor was Atlanta’s three-point shooting.
The Hawks shot 46.2 percent from three in the win compared to just 27.2 percent in the three losses. If the Hawks shoot at their season average or above, they will have an excellent shot to win this series.
4) Prince and Hardaway will start
Budenholzer said Friday that he expects Tim Hardaway Jr. and Taurean Prince to start on the wing for the Hawks during the playoffs.
Prince played in 53 games for the Hawks this season and started 10 of them. As a starter, he averaged 11.4 points per game, which gave the Hawks a nice offensive boost. Atlanta will need more of the same from him, even as the playoffs ramp up in intensity in a way that Millsap can’t explain to the rookie.
“You can’t (understand it) until you get out there,” Millsap said of describing the playoffs to Prince. “The playoffs is one of those things where you can’t really talk about it. Once you’re out on the court, you’ll definitely feel it.”
Budenholzer expressed a certain level of comfort with the status quo from recent weeks, explaining that he thought Prince and Hardaway had thrived as starters.
“Having them in the starting lineup has been good,” Budenholzer said. “I think having Baze (Kent Bazemore) off the bench has been good for us too. The bench has been good for us. It’s just a good mix of guys that we’re going to stick with.”
Budenholzer said that ultimately his decision on picking starters came down to doing what was best for the team.
“From Day 1 we’ve just tried to play and think about the group and what is best for the group — and play whoever is deserving and whoever gives our best chances — and still have some model of consistency.”
5) Sefolosha is ready to go
One of those key bench players is Thabo Sefolosha, who is one of the best perimeter defenders in the Eastern Conference. According to Budenholzer, Sefolosha is fully ready.
“Thabo is completely clear and completely healthy,” Budenholzer said.
By bringing him off the bench, the Hawks will even have more options than usual as far as positional flexibility. If Budenholzer wants a taller defender on Wall — something he has done in the past — Sefolosha has the ability to use his long wingspan and premier skill to disrupt the Wizards’ offense from the point of attack.
6) Howard isn’t worried about the naysayers
Howard said that the Hawks can’t concern themselves what anyone else thinks of them — or the fact that they might not be talking about the Hawks at all.
“They don’t have to talk about us,” Howard said. “It doesn’t matter. It’s like DJ Khaled said, ‘Keep ‘they‘ out of your life.’”
Howard maintained that he was ready to tune out the doubters.
“’They‘ are all the people that don’t believe in us. That’s ‘they‘. You’ve got to keep ‘they‘ out of your life. It doesn’t matter what ‘they‘ want. It’s what we want. We’ve got to win 16 games.”