In a rematch of the 2015 Eastern Conference semifinals, the Washington Wizards will face the Atlanta Hawks in the first round of the NBA playoffs. The Hawks sent the Wizards home after six games two years ago.
This time, things should be different.
The Wizards rank ninth in net rating, outscoring opponents by 1.6 points per 100 possessions, while the Hawks are 19th at minus-0.8, though it should be noted that Atlanta did end the season on a high note, posting a net rating of plus-3.2 since April 1.
But Washington has won three straight against Atlanta, and the Hawks don’t have the personnel to keep all-star point guard John Wall, Bradley Beal and three-point shooting specialist Otto Porter Jr. in check.
Wall established career-highs in points (23.1 per game), assists (10.7) and steals (2.1, most in NBA) this season in addition to creating the second-most points through assists (25.3). His quickness and athleticism make him a threat to score off the dribble (11.8 drives per game) or from the perimeter (32.7 percent from behind the arc) — neither of which Atlanta point guard Dennis Schroder can defend with any consistency.
Schroder was average at defending ballhandlers on the pick and roll and spot-up shooters, particularly when an opposing player made a move toward the basket. Wall, with his lightning-fast first step, should have no problem scoring on Schroder.
If Schroder, a 6-foot-1, 172-pound guard, switches onto Beal, he is going to have trouble fighting through the screen — he struggled against this play during the regular season (1.12 points allowed per possession, putting him in the bottom 20 percent of the league) and is no match for Marcin Gortat, the Wizards’ 6-11, 240-pound center who leads the league in screen assists per game (6.2).
And while the Hawks are (rightly) concerned with the Wizards running the pick and roll through Wall and Beal coming off screens, Porter can just hang back until he gets an open look from beyond the arc. Porter finished fourth in three-point shooting this season (43.4 percent, a career high) and buried 39 of his 76 shots (51.3 percent) from the right corner three.
For the Hawks to win, they need their frontcourt of Paul Millsap and Dwight Howard to dominate the paint, but the Wizards’ Markieff Morris is quick enough to guard them. During the four regular season meetings, Millsap and Howard combined for six points per game in the paint, a negative net rating of minus-26 and a 37 percent effective field goal rate with Morris on the court.
Morris is also a threat to score. In the four games against Atlanta, he averaged 17 points and 7.3 rebounds while shooting 41.7 percent from behind the three-point line — all improvements over his season averages.
One final key matchup to watch centers on two bench players, Atlanta’s Kent Bazemore and Washington’s Kelly Oubre Jr.
Oubre is at his best in transition (1.3 points per possession) or as the spot-up shooter working his jumper off the dribble (57.7 percent effective field goal percentage). However, Oubre hasn’t been productive against Bazemore, creating just four shots — missing three of them, including two from three-point range — in 14 minutes of playing time. Oubre has scored 11 points with seven rebounds and three assists with Bazemore on the bench, indicating a skirmish Coach Scott Brooks might want to avoid.
The number crunchers at FiveThirtyEight give the Wizards a 79 percent chance of moving on to the second round, while applying the team’s adjusted scoring margin for the regular season to Justin Kubatko’s win probability formula to get the average outcome for each seven-game series puts Washington’s likely scenario at beating Atlanta in five games.