Who: No. 4 seed Washington Wizards vs. No. 5 seed Atlanta Hawks, Eastern Conference first-round series
Regular season records: Wizards, 49-33; Hawks, 43-39
2016-17 series record: Wizards 3, Hawks 1
Game 1: Sunday, 1 p.m. (CSN, TNT)
Game 2: Wednesday, 7 p.m. (CSN, NBA TV)
Game 3: Saturday, April 22, 5:30 p.m. (CSN, TNT)
Game 4: Monday, April. 24, 8 p.m. (CSN, TNT)
Game 5 (if necessary): Wednesday, April 26, TBD (CSN)
Game 6 (if necessary): Friday, April 28, TBD (CSN)
Game 7 (if necessary): Sunday, April 30, TBD (TBD)
THE MATCHUP: Backcourt
Advantage: Washington. Finally healthy for an entire season at the same time, John Wall and Bradley Beal went from good to dynamic as a backcourt unit leading a dangerous offense this season. Both Wall and Beal averaged career highs of 23.1 points per game, as Beal blossomed from a good shooter into a good scorer and his all-star partner hit his stride. Wall dished a career-high 10.7 assists and ended the regular season as one of just three players, along with Russell Westbrook and James Harden, to average at least 20 points and 10 assists this season. He also became the first player in NBA history to record at least 1,800 points, 800 assists, 150 steals and 50 blocks in a single season.
Compared to how Wall and Beal are gelling, Atlanta’s Dennis Schroder (17.9 points, 6.3 assists per game), unsteady this year after being promoted to starting point guard in last summer’s roster shuffle, and Tim Hardaway Jr. (14.5 points per game) simply don’t measure up. Even with Hardaway upping his production later in the season to average 17.5 points per game after the all-star break, on the defensive end, trying to contain two of the best perimeter players in the East will be the Hawks’ toughest task throughout the series.
Scouting report: Scott Brooks on Hardaway Jr.: “He’s definitely had a breakout season, he’s had a breakout last couple of months on top of that … Hopefully we can prevent him from shooting open shots. He’s a knockdown shooter and he’s done a great job working on his ability to get to the basket. He’s just not a spot-up shooter. He puts the ball on the floor, but he’s definitely had a break out year. They’ve done a good job developing him.”
THE MATCHUP: Frontcourt
Advantage: Atlanta. Where Wall and Beal are the keys to the Wizards winning the series, Atlanta’s more established frontcourt must be playing well for the Hawks to have a chance. A healthy Paul Millsap will be huge for Atlanta, which went 2-6 when its four-time all-star forward was sidelined with left knee issues. Millsap developed into a more vocal leader when the inconsistent Hawks needed it most this year and averaged 18.1 points and 7.7 rebounds per game. Hawks Coach Mike Budenholzer plans to start first-year pro Taurean Prince, leaving Kent Bazemore to come off the bench at small forward.
In those two spots, Washington stacks up well. The Wizards finally found a player to match Millsap in Markieff Morris, who averaged 17 points and 7.3 rebounds in four games against Atlanta this year, and Otto Porter became one of the most reliable spot-up shooters in the NBA — his 43.2 three-point percentage ranks fifth in the league.
But at center, Dwight Howard is the difference maker. Howard pulled in an impressive 13.5 points and 12.7 rebounds per game this season, and he likely will find a way to surge in the playoffs. He can bother Marcin Gortat, his former backup in Orlando, inside, and still fits in nicely with Atlanta’s larger rotation. Gortat averaged 10.8 points and 10.3 rebounds, but his production dipped in March.
Scouting report: Brooks on Millsap: “If there is a more consistent player in this league, I don’t know who it would be … he’s a matchup problem. He can step out and make threes, his percentage is not where it has been in the past, but one thing I do notice is he makes big threes and he makes fourth-quarter threes. He can put the ball on the floor, and he can get to the free throw line. He’s as good as they get from that four-spot. ‘Kieff’s going to have to play him physical, but we’re going to have to help.”
THE MATCHUP: Bench
Advantage: Washington. The Wizards’ second unit finally coming together was a big part of Washington’s historic turnaround after a 2-8 start to the season. Brooks has capable reserves up and down the bench, from late pickups Brandon Jennings and Bojan Bogdanovic, both solid contributors, to Jason Smith, the veteran big man who added a dependable three-point shot to his arsenal during the offseason. The Wizards will be without backup center Ian Mahinmi (strained left calf) for the start of the playoffs, but they have done well without him before. Mahinmi logged just 31 games during his injury-laden season.
Atlanta’s bench played a large role in the Hawks’ season-ending hot streak, in which they won four of their final five games of the season. The reserves outscored Cleveland’s bench 44-16 and 55-21 in back-to-back victories against the Cavaliers in April. While starting Prince, Budenholzer has Bazemore – in his first year of a $70 million contract and averaging 11 points per game – coming off the bench.
Scouting report: Brooks on the Hawks’ second unit: “They added some really good players with a lot of good experience … [Bazemore is] a tough matchup at his position, the way he pops in, and he shoots the three. He is one of their best shooting threes percentage wise, so whoever they start on the perimeter — their bench is going to be good.”