“All I remember is — they beat us,” Porter says, “and we’re looking forward to this matchup now.”
Besides the progression of Porter, who was a key reserve two years ago but started 80 games this season as the Wizards’ spot-up specialist, so much has changed since 2015. This time, the Wizards (49-32) own the higher seed and home-court advantage as Game 1 tips off Sunday at 1 p.m. inside Verizon Center.
The featured players have changed on both sides as well. And although the Wizards no longer have a chesty, trash-talking veteran to call “Game!” this year’s team possesses something more valuable than the one-year rental of Paul Pierce. These Wizards have depth.
“Both teams feel very comfortable matched up with each other,” John Wall says. “They’re a deep team and have a lot of guys they can use. We feel like we’re the same way.”
Now Washington has an established power forward in Markieff Morris to keep up with Atlanta’s four-time all-star, Paul Millsap.
“We’ve been going at it all year,” Morris says about playing Millsap. “It’s a matchup I’m definitely looking forward to in the playoffs. We’re going to get it in, for sure. It’s going to be a good one.”
In the four regular season games against the Hawks, Morris averaged 17 points on 44 percent shooting along with 7.3 rebounds. Millsap, who missed the last half of March after having a nonsurgical procedure on his left knee, lost a touch of his production against the Wizards. Although Millsap finished the season with averages of 19.1 points on 44.2 percent shooting, his numbers dipped to 16 points and 41.5 percent in the three games played against Washington. Millsap did not appear in the last regular season meeting March 22.
“In the past when we played those guys, Millsap would give us problems because we had to double-team a lot in the post,” Wall recalls. “Now we have a legit four in ’Kieff that does similar things as him, like spacing the floor and [who] can score in the post. So I think that helps us out a lot.”
While the team’s frontcourt reserves took a blow with Ian Mahinmi’s latest injury — he will miss the start of the playoffs while recovering from a left strained calf — several Wizards feel encouraged by Jason Smith’s presence, especially against this opponent.
One of the Hawks’ biggest changes since 2015 has also become one of their greatest strengths against Washington: the addition of center Dwight Howard. In the Hawks’ season-opening 114-99 shellacking of the Wizards, Howard pulled down 19 rebounds, while Marcin Gortat, Morris and Porter combined for 21. Washington, however, recovered to win the next three matchups.
The rebounding edge may belong to the Hawks in this series, but Wall believes Smith, a revelation as a 7-foot three-point shooter, can help neutralize Howard in ways that a more traditional big like Mahinmi may not.
“Jason does a good job defending for us, blocking shots and being able to space the floor, so I think that can help us a lot because you can be able to play Jason and ’Kieff down the stretch,” Wall predicts. “Space the floor and give us an opportunity to get Dwight away from the paint.”
Similar to the 2015 outcome, the Wizards view their recent history as inconsequential to the upcoming playoffs. Instead, Washington looks ahead for a fresh start against a familiar opponent.
“We know they’re a very good team and 3-1 in the regular season doesn’t mean anything,” Coach Scott Brooks says. “Now we’re 0-0. It’s the first to four in a seven-game series. We know we’re going to have to play well to beat them and we feel they’re going to have to play well to do the same to us.
“We’re one of eight teams that have a chance to advance and we’re excited about the opportunity. I’m looking forward to seeing how we’ll play, and I’m very confident with how we’re going to play. I know we’re going to play with great effort.”