But Monday, Howard proved Wall right. The center scored 16 points on 6-of-14 shooting from the floor and added 15 rebounds, all of which led to a blunt statement from Wizards Coach Scott Brooks the following afternoon.
“He’s back,” Brooks said of Howard. “He’s back to his old self.”
There is a stark difference between how Marcin Gortat and the Wizards’ frontcourt handled Howard at home and how they handled him in Atlanta, but to Washington, Howard’s strong performance in Game 4 is part of a larger issue. The Wizards surrendered 104 points in the paint in Games 3 and 4, while scoring only 64. In the first two games of the series, the numbers were more even, with Atlanta scoring 90 points in the paint to Washington’s 94.
That disparity — and the negative plus-minus rating the Wizards’ starting frontcourt produced in the past two games — is a concern as Washington tries to regain control of the series, now tied at 2-2, on Wednesday at Verizon Center.
“Yes, it is a problem,” Brooks said. “They got too many layups, too many easy points around the paint. Howard did, definitely. … He wasn’t playing much the first couple of games; he’s back to playing well, and hopefully we can counter that with some good positioning so he doesn’t get the lobs and the easy points around the paint, and if so we can wrap him up, put him on the free-throw line. But other than that, we have to keep ’em out of the paint as much as we can.”
Keeping Atlanta from scoring easily inside hasn’t been an easy task for the Wizards, with forward Markieff Morris picking up quick fouls. Gortat, who limited Howard so effectively in the first two games while turning in consecutive 14-point performances, has dipped on defense as well. With Gortat on the floor, the Wizards were outscored by 22 points in Game 3 and one point in Game 4. The big man is carrying an extra load guarding Howard because Jason Smith doesn’t match up and fellow backup center Ian Mahinmi is still recovering from a strained left calf.
The Frenchman gave an optimistic outlook on his recovery Tuesday.
“Progress is good. A little bit ahead of schedule,” Mahinmi said. “Been doing good, getting better every day and so I’m on the right track.”
Mahinmi has done shooting drills but has not practiced with the team since his injury during an April 10 win against Detroit. In front of reporters, he performed shooting drills without jumping, and Mahinmi said the next step is getting on to the court and being able to play at game speed. The plan, he said, is for him to come back in this first-round series. But Brooks is skeptical.
“We’d love to have him, but we’re not going to put him out there until he’s ready to play … don’t know when that’s gonna be,” Brooks said. “He’s definitely out tomorrow, that’s all I can say, but that’s all I know. Do I think he can play in Game 6? I doubt it, but you never know. You never know.”
While waiting on relief from a healthy backup center, one of the Wizards’ main goals is to improve their defense. Increasing their perimeter scoring and finding opportunities inside is part of evening out that points-in-the-paint disparity as well, but primarily, Washington views this as a defensive issue.
Wall remains optimistic about the Wizards’ ability to cap Howard, particularly returning home on Wednesday. He pointed to the first two games of the series as evidence they can limit Howard. It’s about getting stops in transition.
“Just do a better job of stopping — they do a great job of getting out in transition and they throwing lobs to [Howard],” Wall said Tuesday. “Just got to do a better job of protecting the paint. I mean, when guys get into the paint, [Howard] does a great job. But [Gortat] has to help, he has to help Dwight getting off his rebounds and putbacks and stuff like that.
“They did what they was supposed to do — go home and win. We tried to go there and steal one, maybe get two; we didn’t do that, didn’t accomplish that. We got an opportunity to come back tomorrow, play in front of our home crowd and go up 3-2.”