After he was relegated to the bench for the final 15 minutes of Game 2 on Wednesday night, Atlanta big man Dwight Howard stood in the hallway at Verizon Center and answered nearly every postgame question the same way: “I don’t know.”
Questions about the high volume of fouls, about the physicality of the game, about his lack of playing time — he notched just less than 20 minutes — all received the same no-response response.
When it came to Howard, it seemed the Wizards were the only ones with answers Wednesday.
Washington Coach Scott Brooks and multiple players commended Marcin Gortat for his defense on Howard in the opening round of the Eastern Conference series. After Howard playfully dunked on his former backup center in pregame warmups Wednesday, Gortat bothered Howard all night, and the Atlanta big man scored just six points on 3-of-5 shooting from the field. Game 1 wasn’t much better; Howard scored seven points off just six shots in the Wizards’ win, and Washington outscored Atlanta by 21 points when Howard was on the floor.
“I think [Gortat] has played terrific,” Brooks said Friday. “He’s been really active defensively. He’s done a really good job on some of their bigs. He’s done a good job on guarding some of their small guys on their switches.”
As good as Washington has been in sidelining Howard — Atlanta Coach Mike Budenholzer said it was a “gut feeling” to leave Howard on the bench in the fourth quarter — the Wizards also have been pleased with their adjustments when Howard is absent. Atlanta played forward Paul Millsap at the five-spot for stretches Wednesday, which is usually a successful, small-ball lineup for the Hawks. But even in foul trouble, the Wizards’ small lineup responded with an explosive fourth quarter, outscoring Atlanta 35-23.
Naturally, Howard’s absence for the entire final period allowed Washington better opportunities inside. For the first 36 minutes of the game, the Hawks outscored the Wizards 36-24 in the paint. But in the fourth quarter, the Wizards scored 16 points in the paint to the Hawks’ eight.
“They said they had a better small-ball lineup than us; we like our small-ball lineup,” John Wall said Friday, referring to a postgame assertion from Millsap. “We’re a team that likes to get out and going. With Dwight out the game, [it] gives us an opportunity to attack even more because they don’t really have rim protection. With Dwight back there, you kind of second guess at times because he does a great job of jumping straight up and blocking shots, but when he goes out the game we get more aggressive attacking the rim.”
As it heads to Atlanta on Saturday with a 2-0 edge in the series, Washington feels comfortable with its small-ball lineup.
“I think we were prepared, because they’ve played enough with [Millsap] at the five with Howard out of the game, and a lot of times that happens, but that’s what they want to do,” Brooks said. “So we were prepared for it if it did happen in the series, and it has. I feel very comfortable with any of our bigs guarding Millsap. Not saying that we’re going to be able to stop him, because he’s such a good player, an all-star player, but we just want to make sure that they’re not easy looks.”
Wall expects Howard to be more active on his home court in Atlanta. In that case, the Wizards remain confident in their original answer.
“I think Gortat’s locked back in; he has a great focus in what we really need for him to do,” Wall said Friday. “Dwight’s really not getting as many touches as he probably will — I think that’s an adjustment they might make going back home, try to get him involved a lot more.
“Main thing for us is to just keep battling, don’t let them get comfort at any positions, and Marc keeps playing the way he’s playing with him and making him make tough shots. He hasn’t been getting a lot of touches, but I think we could see a lot of adjustments for that in Game 3.”
Notes: Ian Mahinmi (strained left calf) is out for at least the next two games, Brooks said Friday. The backup big man was reevaluated after his MRI exam last week and will travel with the team to Atlanta but is not healthy enough to play.
“There’s really no timetable other than, whenever he’s ready, he’s ready,” Brooks said. “There’s no pressure from me or our staff, just whenever he’s ready. He is improving, he’s progressing well, but he’s not ready to play. We don’t know if he’s gonna be available later down the series or not at all. Definitely not for the next two games.”
The NBA fined Wizards swingman Kelly Oubre Jr. $25,000 for kicking a ball into the stands after the final buzzer of the Wizards’ Game 2 victory Wednesday night.